Some Nevada Criminal Justice Reforms Move Ahead

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A bill to expand good-time credits and return some judicial discretion in sentencing moved forward Wednesday, but without some oversight provisions that inmate advocates wanted.

The main vehicle for the prison and justice reforms is AB510, which would expand the good-time credits offered to offenders who complete programs while incarcerated. Offering those credits will drop the estimated prison population by about 1,500 over the next two years, and both money committees have already approved budgets
that set aside half of the estimated savings.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to add in several
elements from another bill, including provisions that would allow judges more discretion over enhancement penalties. Many of those enhancements currently include mandatory doubling of sentences. The
amended reform legislation would allow judges to issue enhancement
sentences worth an extra one to 10 years in prison.

Lawmakers voted to mandate that the judges must include their sentencing rationale in the official court record. Judiciary Chairman Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, said that communication is key to heading off public anger toward the justice system.

Judges' decisions came under attack from victim advocates in the 1990s, who said sentences were often arbitrary and inconsistent.

Justice Jim Hardesty and other advocates of sentencing reform have asked for judicial discretion to be returned for all sentences, not just enhancements. Lawmakers declined to make those changes this year, instead voting to create a commission that will review sentences and come back with recommendation for the 2009 Legislature.

Several elements were left out of the amended package, including a citizen oversight committee that inmate advocates passionately argued for. Prison officials objected, saying that it would overlap with the sentencing commission already passed by lawmakers. That commission is empowered to take a broad look at the state's criminal justice system, they said.

Also left out were sections subjecting the Parole Board to the open meetings law, and making them give explanations to prisoners they deny parole to, and review all denials.

"This (bill) is a major step in revising sentencing, and it's a plenty big enough step for this session," said Amodei.

A ruling from the state Supreme Court is pending on the open meetings issue, and lawmakers would be better off considering the issue after that ruling, he added.

The Parole Board reforms were supported by Assemblyman David Parks, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas.
Parks said Wednesday he's "very pleased" with the package that is
moving ahead.

Amodei said he expects a vote Thursday on the amended bill. At least one committee member said Wednesday he still wasn't comfortable with the good-time credits or the return of judicial discretion.

"I'm a little hesitant," said Washington, who in 1995 worked on the mandatory sentencing laws now under review. "We didn't hear any testimony from the victims. If I had to vote today I'd probably vote no."

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