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July 28, 2014

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Here’s the ticket: Fewer citations causing hurt for specialty courts

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Sam Morris

Judge Linda Bell claps for a status check as she presides over specialty court Tuesday, August 14, 2012.

Specialty Courts

  • Here’s a list of specialty courts in Clark County that receive funding generated in part by traffic and other misdemeanor citations written by law enforcement authorities:
  • Henderson Municipal Assistance in Breaking the Cycle Court
  • North Las Vegas Municipal Drug Court
  • Las Vegas Township Justice Court DUI Courts (2)
  • Las Vegas Township Justice Court Drug Court
  • Las Vegas Municipal Hope Court
  • Las Vegas Municipal DUI Court
  • Las Vegas Municipal Drug Court
  • Las Vegas Municipal Female Prostitution and Prevention Program
  • Clark County Adult Drug Court
  • Clark County Mental Health Court
  • Clark County Felony DUI Court
  • Clark County Dependency Mothers’ Drug Court
  • Clark County Family Drug Court
  • Clark County Child Support Drug Court
  • Clark County Juvenile Drug Court

When officers write fewer traffic tickets, it means trouble for the courts, which build their budgets on the business of busting mischievous motorists.

A drop in fines and court costs collected from traffic cases and other misdemeanors is translating into budget cuts that could wind up costing taxpayers more in the long run.

“It is not cheap to run specialty courts,” Clark County District Judge Linda Bell said. “But the cost savings are really huge in terms of people not being arrested, not being in jail, not being in prison.”

Additionally, prosecutors and anti-DUI activists fear continued cuts in court treatment programs eventually will result in more drunken drivers on Nevada streets and highways.

Since the beginning of the decade, the Nevada judiciary has experienced a significant drop in revenue generated from traffic cases and other misdemeanors. While such revenues have dropped statewide, Clark County — the state’s cash cow— brought in about $1.1 million less this fiscal year than a year ago.

From July 2012 to June 2013 the state took in around $26 million in fees from traffic cases and other misdemeanors. About $21 million of that money came from Clark County. A little more than half of the money the state collects from those fees is used to fund about a quarter of the state judiciary’s annual budget.

The amount generated by the fees had been steadily increasing through fiscal year 2010, when the state’s total hit a high water mark of $30 million. The next year though, the number dipped by 5 percent. Since then, the total has continued to drop.

While the state judiciary budget has been reducing spending in a variety of areas to compensate for the lower revenue, cuts to specialty courts may have the most direct impact on the public. The courts are designed to help addicts, the mentally ill or other specific populations avoid incarceration and turn around their lives.

This year, the state judiciary cut specialty courts’ budgets by 3.5 percent. Next year, the cut will be even bigger — 5 percent. All 16 specialty courts in Clark County will see their budgets reduced equally.

The first tactic for staunching the specialty courts’ hemorrhaging budgets likely will be letting fewer people participate in these programs.

More than 900 people participate in Clark County District Court’s drug courts, mental health court and felony DUI court and many more people participate in other programs in Clark County’s municipal and justice courts.

Bell, who oversees the adult drug court, mental health court and felony DUI court, had to trim nearly $106,000 from the courts’ combined $3.03 million budgets during the last round of cuts.

She’s certain cutting an additional 5 percent reduction will be difficult.

Bell says she thinks some of the best success stories out of her specialty courts come from people who have a lot of prior felonies and are considered close calls — the kind of people who will likely have to be turned away as the specialty courts contract.

Supporters of the already cash-strapped treatment courts fear the cuts could put the community at greater risk.

Rehabilitating someone who has been a chronic drain on the system is a huge gain, not just for that individual but for the entire community and for the people who now won’t be victimized because of that person’ behavior, Bell said.

Sandy Heverly, executive director and co-founder of STOP DUI, a nonprofit organization focused on ending drunk driving, said she felt any reductions to the felony DUI specialty court program would put the community in danger.

"I believe that it's a successful program," Heverly said. "For every one person you can turn around — my gosh that's one less person we have to worry about killing or hurting our loved ones."

Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Rutledge, who acts as a prosecutor for the felony DUI court and is head of the D.A.’s DUI team, agrees.

"If our goal is to have people to stop committing DUIs, (felony DUI court) is a very effective way to cut down on the number of DUIs," Rutledge said. "If we cut down on the number of people in this program, we're going to have more DUIs."

If the specialty courts’ budget gets really dire, it could mean spending less on drug testing. Participants in the drug and DUI courts undergo frequent random drug tests as part of treatment. Bell said drug testing often is essential for accountability and recovery and that she will fight to make sure people aren’t tested less.

Reducing the number of drug tests a person must submit to would make the program much less effective — to the point where the court might as well just get rid of testing, Rutledge said.

While citations in Clark County are written by a few different agencies including Nevada Highway Patrol and local municipalities’ police departments, Metro Police tend to be the biggest ticket generators.

Metro has said it’s been busting fewer bad drivers, with tickets being down about 25 percent, because officers are too busy dashing from call to call.

The drop in this type of preventative policing is part of what inspired Metro this month to stop responding to minor accidents.

Metro’s Traffic Bureau has seen a decrease in manpower over the past few years. In June 2012 there were 159 officers in the bureau; a year later that number dipped to 141 officers. As of March 6, the number of officers in the bureau had fallen to 139.

While other Metro officers write tickets, and not all officers in the bureau focus on writing up bad drivers, officers in the Traffic Bureau do write the most tickets.

The specialty courts aren’t the only area of the judiciary that could suffer if the number of tickets don’t start going up — but continued budget cutbacks could cause many of them to disappear or be rendered useless.

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