Lawmakers Consider Alternatives to Prison Growth

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Nevada lawmakers were told Tuesday that the state's prison population is projected to jump 61 percent over the next decade - but with the right policies, they can put a dent in that growth.

The growth is being driven by a failing probation system and rates of drug and alcohol abuse that are among the worst in the nation, said consultants from the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Unless lawmakers expand substance abuse treatment programs, the state's criminal justice problems will only grow, they added.

But in the past few years, the state has moved in the opposite direction, with residential substance abuse treatment beds actually
declining 10 percent, according to the consultants' report outlined in a series of presentations to a joint Assembly-Senate budget panel and two other committees.

National prisons consultant James Austin explained the results of his analysis of Nevada's prison system, and suggested some options lawmakers could take to reduce the impact.

First, Nevada's sentencing guidelines need to be changed and some laws that force judges to impose "mandatory minimums" for certain crimes should be reconsidered, he said. While judges should get more discretion in sentencing, Austin also advocated mandating certain low-level offenders should get probation rather than prison terms.

Austin also told lawmakers the state's probation system needs reform badly. He suggested implementing the kinds of incentives that help make Nevada's separate parole program effective. Parolees in Nevada can get time off their sentences for good behavior. That's one reason Nevada has a low recidivism rate - only 27 percent, well below the national average of 40 percent, said Austin.

In contrast, about half of probationers fail to complete their probation and get prison terms. Those probation violators account for about 40 percent of those entering prison. Of that group, about half are "technical violators" who fail a drug test, don't show up to appointments, or don't pay required fees, said Austin.

Finally, the state needs to increase the number of people who complete vocational, educational, and substance abuse programs both in and out of state prisons, said Austin. Many in the corrections system suffer from either substance abuse problems, mental illnesses, or both.

"The only place to detox someone (in Nevada) is in state prison," said Austin. "You're going to be stuck in this problem unless you set aside some money to put some programs in place."

As of last month, 29 percent of Nevada prisoners were reported to have some type of mental illness, almost twice the national average.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, agreed with Austin that the state's probationers aren't getting the attention they need.

"We do not provide sufficient support for the first-time offender," said Raggio. "The time to save people, and prevent admissions, is when they're on probation."

The Justice Center report also mapped out neighborhoods where the state is spending much of its corrections money. Five zip codes in an area of Las Vegas just north of the Strip and running toward Nellis Air Force Base - 89101, 89106, 89108, 89030 and 89115 - accounted for $30.9 million in prison spending last year. That's roughly 12 percent of the 2006 prison budget.

Ultimately, the state can and should find better ways to invest in those neighborhoods, said Austin.

"It's going to cost money to do what you want to do," said Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas. "I guess all of us members are going to have to consider that. Do we want to protect our neighborhoods, or protect our wallets?"

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)