Lawmakers Recommend Rural Justice System Improvements

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A new $9 million courthouse and a juvenile detention facility were recommended Tuesday for the small eastern Nevada town of Ely by a legislative panel studying the criminal justice system in rural areas of the state.

The committee headed by Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, was urged by District Judge Dan Papez of Ely to recommend replacing an old courthouse that lacks adequate security but must handle cases of the state's most violent inmates, from the maximum-security Ely State Prison.

The proposal will go to Gov. Kenny Guinn, for possible inclusion in the budget he'll submit to the 2005 Legislature.

Among concerns noted by the committee was the use of a public elevator in the existing courthouse to get inmates to the second-floor courtroom; metal cages in a supply room used to hold inmates awaiting court appearances; and no way to keep inmates isolated from jurors or the public when they're being escorted in and out of the building.

Papez said White Pine County is solidly behind the project, which would take two to three years to complete - if funds are available. County officials have said a local bond issue is unlikely given the weak economy and declining property values in Ely.

Discussing the juvenile detention facility, Papez said errant youths in eastern Nevada can face vehicle trips as long as five hours to reach a state reformatory in Elko. He said a new facility in Ely could serve White Pine, Eureka and Lincoln counties.

The committee agreed to urge Guinn to seek funding from the Legislature that could be used as matching money for funds from federal or private sources. Panel members noted about $2 million was provided to two other multi-county facilities for juveniles, one in Humboldt County and the other in Lyon County.

The committee also decided to urge the state Supreme Court to include a rural court coordinator in the staffing proposals to be included in the court system's plan for the two-year budget cycle that will open in mid-2005.

The panel also proposed that state laws be modified to allow more flexibility in counseling that's mandated in domestic violence cases. The required hours wouldn't be changed, but instead of 1 1/2 hours per week over periods of several months, a person could see a counselor for three hours every other week - or even six hours once a month.

The problem, the committee was told, is that such counseling often isn't available in rural locations and people have to drive long distances to comply with the counseling requirements.

Another bill draft for the 2005 session would give judges more flexibility in deciding whether a juvenile needs to be evaluated for substance abuse problems.

Also recommended was the idea of transitional housing for inmates about to be released from prison. Plans for a prerelease center were endorsed last week by the Legislature's Interim Finance Committee, and prison officials hope to have the center open with 200 inmates next summer.