Nevada Justice, ACLU Critical of Trend in State Prison Funding

With Nevada's prison system eating up a larger chunk of the state budget, critics ranging from a state Supreme Court justice to the American Civil Liberties Union are calling for curbing growing inmate populations and spiraling costs.

"We need to look at whether we're being smart about the way we
punish and incarcerate inmates in this state," Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty told the Las Vegas Review-Journal for a Thursday report. He added that as a justice and a taxpayer he was
"shocked" by the potential costs of state prison programs.

"If we do nothing to re-evaluate our criminal justice system, we will consume a lot of the state's budget simply incarcerating people and building prisons," he said.

The state Legislature approved nearly $300 million this year to build new prison space, but officials say the bill will be larger when taxpayers are asked to staff and operate the facilities.

Corrections officials say more prisons are needed, especially with Nevada growing and crime rates rising nationally.

"We had to have what we asked for to keep up with the growth of the state," said Fritz Schlottman, the department's administrator for offender management.

The state Department of Corrections operating budget went from $423 million in the last biennium to $539 million in the current one, an increase of 27.3 percent, according to Budget Director Andrew Clinger.

Corrections went from 7.3 percent of the state operating budget to 7.9 percent.

Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU, said he was dismayed that legislators continue to pursue a "lock 'em up and throw away the key approach," at the expense of priorities such as education.

"What they did wasn't smart from a public policy perspective; it wasn't smart in terms of enhancing public safety; it wasn't smart in terms of responsibly managing the budget," Peck said of the recently concluded biennial legislative session.

"There was a limited pot of money and everybody knew that," he said. "To the extent that they were going to spend a substantial amount to fund new prisons, there was going to be substantially less to fund everything else."

Hardesty, Peck and others say it would be fiscally and socially more responsible to spend money on programs to prevent people from committing crimes and to rehabilitate them in prison so they don't commit more crimes once they're released.

In addition, they say the state's criminal laws often impose long sentences and send people to prison who don't belong there, because legislators are eager to seem tough on crime without considering the financial consequences.

Peck questioned the amount of new construction funding, which he said legislators should have done more to question and curtail.

Schlottman said the state could face a lawsuit if prison overcrowding continues. Peck said the ACLU has no plans to sue.

The state's prison population stands at about 13,000 inmates, the Review-Journal reported.

Among new projects and funding are $66 million to add 400 beds to the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Center in North Las Vegas, $56 million to expand and renovate the minimum-security Indian Springs Conservation Camp northwest of Las Vegas, and $53 million to add about 600 beds to the medium-security High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs. Some $13 million was budgeted to complete an expansion already under way at High Desert.

Another $65 million was allocated to add about 600 beds to the medium-security Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs, and $30 million for four 240-bed prefabricated medium-security housing units at facilities around the state.

The Legislature allocated nearly $10 million in planning funds, including about $8 million for "Prison 8," a new medium-security facility slated to open in Indian Springs in 2010.

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