The price of getting tough

Nevada has drifted away from tough legislative screening of anti-crime bills

State Budget Director Perry Comeaux has warned state lawmakers that their anti-crime measures could blow the top off the prison budget.

State Budget Director Perry Comeaux has warned state lawmakers that their anti-crime measures could blow the top off the prison budget.

Photo By Dennis Myers

In the late 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Nevada experienced furious growth in the rate of prison spending and construction. The U.S. Justice Department issued a report in 1988 placing Nevada taxpayers third in the nation in the share of their taxes that went to prisons. More than once, the state lost lawsuits alleging overcrowding and other prison problems. During one biennium (the state budgets on two-year periods), Nevada actually built a prison a year. Former Nevada Supreme Court Justice Charles Springer once observed that Nevada had a higher incarceration rate than any known jurisdiction in the world.

This situation was created partly by Nevada’s high population growth rate, but also by the political allure of anti-crime legislation sponsored by state lawmakers. These measures did three things—made parole more difficult to get, created additional crimes by making more things illegal and made sentencing tougher. Another factor was expansion of police agencies and criminal courts.

Many of these measures were of uncertain value in crime prevention, but they made it easier for legislators to get reelected, while the prison budget skyrocketed. And once an anti-crime measure was in the law books, it was a brave lawmaker who voted to repeal it.

Finally, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, two leading legislators decided to try to get a handle on the problem. Assemblyman Robert Sader and Sen. Sue Wagner, both of Washoe County, were in good positions to do so—they headed the two judiciary committees that processed anti-crime bills.

One of the reasons anti-crime measures were enacted so often was that, while many of them had impact on the budget, the impact of each individual bill was not great. The lawmakers processed the bills one at a time, so the cumulative cost was not apparent, and sponsors were not held responsible for a great increase in spending.

Wagner and Sader decided to hold all the anti-crime bills and process them as a package, so the collective financial impact was clearer, and sponsors of the bills would have to justify contributing to the hefty price tag.

The result was a substantial decline in the enactment of anti-crime measures. Soon the rate of incarceration in the state slowed, and at one point, Sader said the state was saved the cost of building one new prison.

But eventually, both Sader and Wagner retired from the Legislature, Wagner in 1991 and Sader in 1994. Their successors as Judiciary Committee leaders didn’t continue the collective reviews of legislation. Other techniques were tried, such as a select committee made up of members of the judiciary and budget committees to examine prison measures or outside consultants to assess fiscal impact. But there was not the same momentum Sader and Wagner provided, and some lawmakers were downright hostile to tough scrutiny of anti-crime measures.

The Guinn administration is now planning to stop taking inmates from two other states to free up prison space for home-grown inmates, which will reduce revenue to the state. It is also promoting less-expensive prison alternatives like house arrest. Even then, Gov. Kenny Guinn has requested a one-fifth hike in prison spending.

Last month, Nevada Budget Director Perry Comeaux said the anti-crime bills on the bill drafting list for this year’s Legislature threaten to raise the prison population to new heights. Among other things, lawmakers’ proposed measures include 1,700 new police officers, which Comeaux says would drive the prison population beyond anything for which the state can pay. (The proposal for more officers is a response to a non-binding public vote last November.) There are also things like an “enhanced penalty for burglary of [a] research facility” and increased penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Bernie Anderson says the last time the state hiked the penalty for driving under the influence, some county police and prosecutors said they wouldn’t enforce it because their counties simply didn’t have the money to do so.

Anderson says he isn’t comfortable with the level of scrutiny given to the fiscal implications of anti-crime measures, but in the past, it’s been a difficult battle to fight.

“No, I’m not as pleased with our analysis of the fiscal basis as when we brought in an expert to help and get an outside review of these things.”

Anderson said a senator who wanted a state three-strikes bill, Mark James, was reluctant to bring in such consultants because it could have provided evidence against his own anti-crime measure.

Even when there isn’t opposition from other legislators, he said, there are still interest groups—like domestic violence agencies, anti-drunken driving groups, and highway flaggers—that want their own penalty enhancements.