Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008 | 2:08 a.m.
In 1995, amid a national movement to “get tough on crime,” the Nevada Legislature passed a series of truth-in-sentencing laws, mandating prison sentences for a variety of criminal acts, including some nonviolent offenses.
The laws worked in at least one respect — the state prisons are overflowing. As reported last Sunday in the Las Vegas Sun, Nevada has the ninth-highest incarceration rate in the country. As a result, prisons have run out of space — inmate bunks are stacked anywhere they fit, including classrooms and gyms. And despite a prison budget that has ballooned over the past decade, officials have not been able to provide adequate space or staff to handle the inmate population.
Next year the Legislature will be asked to deal with the issue of prison overcrowding. Because of the economy and the tight state budget, the prison system has made sizable budget cuts and isn’t expected to get a significant increase in funding next year.
Under the circumstances, lawmakers should reconsider the truth-in-sentencing laws. In its zeal to be tough on crime, the Legislature failed to see that many nonviolent offenders would be swept into prison along with murderers, rapists and others who belong there.
As a result, people who could have been in diversion or treatment programs are spending time in prison at a cost of about $20,000 a year. A probation sentence is a tenth of that, or less. And that adds up. As of 2006, 34 percent of male prisoners and 60 percent of female prisoners in Nevada were nonviolent offenders.
Lawmakers should give judges the latitude in many cases to impose alternative sentences. They should also fully fund probation departments to oversee the offenders, along with increasing the number of drug and mental health treatment programs.
The Legislature has ignored such proposals in the past for fear of looking “soft on crime,” but such a plan would save the state money and give some nonviolent offenders a much-needed second chance.