New state department and director aim to reduce wide disparities in sentences for similar crimes

Gov. Steve Sisolak has appointed a director for the state’s Department of Sentencing Policy — a new agency that will help develop guidelines on how severe a sentence should be for any given crime and aim to reduce disparities based on factors such as race and which judge is handling the case. 

Sisolak announced Wednesday that he selected former Legislative Counsel Bureau lawyer Victoria Gonzalez for the role. The new department is a product of AB80, a bill passed in 2019 that called for a stand-alone, nonpartisan staff to coordinate and exchange data between criminal justice agencies and advise volunteer members of the state’s Sentencing Commission.

“Victoria has shown a deep commitment to sentencing reform in Nevada, and her recent experience in the Legislative Counsel Bureau gives her a unique understanding of the challenges that must be overcome in addressing this important issue,” Sisolak said in a press release. “Victoria worked closely with legislators and other stakeholders to draft legislation related to the criminal justice system, and I have full confidence that her expertise will prove invaluable as she takes on this new role.”

Gonzalez spent the last three years working for the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s (LCB) legal division as a deputy legislative counsel. During her time at the LCB, she also staffed the Assembly Education Committee during the latest legislative session as well as being a co-counsel for the Advisory Committee for the Administration of Justice and the Nevada Sentencing Commission for the 2017-2018 interim.

The position is required by the bill to be filled by an attorney. Gonzalez has worked in the field since finishing law school at the University of Wisconsin in 2012, and is licensed to practice law in Nevada as well as Wisconsin. Her resume also includes a three-year stint teaching 7th grade English.

The Sentencing Commission, created by lawmakers in 2017, is made up of 25 members of the criminal justice system including judges, law enforcement officials, public defenders and district attorneys. But the group had previously been limited to just three meetings per year, and getting all the necessary work done in that timeframe “borders on the absurd, and it certainly is not doing the service that you, I would think, would want to have done going forward,” Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty told lawmakers this spring.

Hardesty said sentencing commissions typically study data on incarcerated people and sets guidelines on an appropriate sentence so people who commit similar crimes and have similar criminal histories get a similar sentence. That’s done by studying how similarly situated defendants have been sentenced and creating a matrix that gives a judge a range of potential sentences.

“The effort is to try to address issues of racial inequality and other areas where like-kind defendants are treated differently in the criminal justice system,” Hardesty said. 

Lawyers on either side can argue for a longer or shorter sentence depending on aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

Lawmakers in 2017 adopted general policy goals for sentencing and corrections, including that it should “embody fairness, consistency, proportionality, and opportunity” and that “the laws should convey a clear and purposeful rationale for sentencing in corrections.”

The Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice, however, found that there are wide disparities among judges on how serious a sentence they imposed. Some judges sentenced defendants to prison 30 percent of the time for a particular crime, and others sentenced people convicted of the same crime to prison 60 percent of the time. 

Hardesty said that if the Legislature chooses to criminalize a certain action, the staff on the Department of Sentencing Policy could testify about their research of how all 50 states treat that action, and recommend whether 1 to 4 years or 1 to 10 years would be appropriate, for example.

Gonzalez was among three candidates interviewed in November by the Nevada Sentencing Commission. Kerry Malone was also on that list and recommended to the governor. A third, Jeannie Hua, was disqualified by the commission after the interview because only one letter of recommendation had been submitted on her behalf by a deadline, instead of the required two.