Indy Explains: What happens now that traffic tickets are decriminalized?

Trooper Brian Eby traffic stop

After years of trying, Nevada lawmakers finally took the step of decriminalizing traffic tickets this session, turning arrestable misdemeanors into civil infractions that don’t lead to jail time. 

But what does the new law, which passed with near-unanimous support as AB116 and was signed into law on June 8, mean for motorists and those who have unresolved traffic tickets or bench warrants now?

Drivers should be aware that the key provisions of the bill do not take effect until Jan. 1, 2023, although some jurisdictions might opt to implement it earlier or prosecutors may decide to treat certain violations as mere civil citations. Although there is a provision in the bill to cancel all bench warrants for minor traffic infractions in 2023, the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas), said that people with unpaid traffic tickets should still seek to pay and clear them or risk arrest.

“You still need to take care of it,” said Nguyen, who is a criminal defense attorney. “Change happens slowly.”

The measure does not eliminate the possibility of jail time for all traffic issues. Certain more serious offenses — such as driving under the influence or driving well over the speed limit — can lead to an arrest on the spot or can escalate to a warrant that would make a person liable for an arrest in the future.

Overall, however, Nevada lawmakers made a significant change with the bill that many local jurisdictions will be adjusting to over the next year and a half. It also could have major implications for thousands of Nevadans who could still be arrested at any time because they can’t afford to pay or forgot to deal with a traffic matter.

“I wish I could share with you names, and the numbers of texts and calls and emails that I get from people on a weekly basis, who say ... ‘I'm afraid to go outside, I'm afraid to drive. I'm afraid to go anywhere with my kids, because I'm afraid I might get pulled over and taken to jail, and my kids are in the car,” said Leisa Moseley, who advocated for the bill as state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Finally, there is going to be some relief for all of these people.”

Read on for more questions and answers about the change.

Q: Can the police still stop me?

A: Yes. The bill explicitly authorizes police officers who believe someone committed a traffic violation to stop and detain the person in order to investigate the alleged violation, search the person or vehicle, ask to see proof of insurance and issue a citation.

Q: What crimes remain criminal (i.e., a misdemeanor or more serious and subject to jail time) under the new law?

A: The law maintains a more severe penalty structure for many violations, including driving under the influence or having an open container of alcohol in a car. 

Also in the more serious category: 

  • driving more than 30 mph above the speed limit 
  • aggressive driving
  • driving on a sidewalk
  • failing to yield for an emergency vehicle
  • injuring a road construction worker
  • unsafe passing and following too closely 
  • failing to obey the police 
  • failing to stop and render aid after an accident 
  • falsifying documents (such as a driver’s license application), or
  • violating a court order to use an ignition interlock device that prevents driving under the influence.

It is still a misdemeanor to drive with an invalid or fraudulent license, including cases in which a license has been suspended or revoked. It is also still a misdemeanor for people to drive if they have epilepsy and have been informed by a doctor that their condition severely impairs their ability to drive safely.

Q: What crimes have been downgraded to a civil infraction?

A: Matters that are now a civil infraction include: 

  • carrying people in the bed of a truck 
  • driving in a carpool lane with too few passengers 
  • driving slowly and then failing to allow other cars to pass 
  • talking on a cellphone while driving 
  • lower-level speeding 
  • bicycling in a prohibited area 
  • not signaling when turning a bike or not having proper lights and reflectors on a bike
  • tampering with a required pollution control device
  • violating rules about vehicle length and width, and
  • failing to have insurance for an off-highway vehicle.

Q: Am I still required to pay my fine?

A: Yes. The bill requires a person to respond to a civil infraction citation within 90 calendar days after it is issued, either by paying the fine assessed in the citation or by requesting a hearing to contest the citation. The justice or municipal court that has jurisdiction is required to send the person a reminder at least 30 days before the deadline; that reminder can be through a text message if the person who received the citation opted in that communication method.

A person who does not respond within 90 days is considered guilty of the traffic offense, and would be liable to pay the fine and any administrative assessments.

Q: How much can I be fined?

A: The bill sets a maximum penalty of $500 for a traffic-related civil infraction, unless a specific statute calls for a higher fine. 

The bill does authorize a court to waive or reduce fines, though, if the court determines the person is unable to pay, or the court can create a payment plan for a person if the court finds the person doesn’t have the ability to pay at the moment. Courts can also reduce a moving violation to a nonmoving violation, or order a person to attend traffic school or perform community service in lieu of payment.

Q: How do I respond when issued a violation?

A: The bill allows motorists to communicate through electronic means about whether they want to contest a fine or are accepting responsibility to pay it, and also authorizes payments to be made through electronic means, in addition to in person or by mail. 

A reminder that payment is due can also be sent through mail or electronic means such as email.

Q: What happens if I don’t pay my fine?

A: The matter can be sent to a collections agency, and a collections fee can be assessed. For delinquent amounts less than $2,000, the collection fee is capped at $100.

A court also has the authority to garnish a person’s wages or put a lien on property for delinquent fines. The measure also specifies that a court can order the suspension of the person’s driver’s license over non-payment.

Nguyen said it’s not clear exactly how AB116 will work in harmony with another bill the Legislature passed — SB219, from Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, which prohibits courts from suspending a driver’s license for nonpayment of fees.

Q: Who gets the money from the fine?

A:  A fine is paid to the treasurer of the city where the violation occurred, or the county, if the infraction did not take place in an incorporated city.

Q: What other consequences are there for bad driving?

A: The bill still maintains a “point system” that gives demerits for bad driving. The bill directs the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend a person’s driver’s license for one year if they log a sixth civil infraction or traffic offense within five years, as long as all of the offenses are valued at four points or more.

Violations worth four points include running a stop sign, texting while driving and driving between 31 and 40 mph over the speed limit. 

Q: When does the bill become effective?

A: The bill specifies that prosecutors can choose to treat certain offenses that are currently treated as misdemeanors as civil infractions at any time, although DUIs must be treated as the more serious misdemeanor. But generally, the bill’s provisions take effect Jan. 1, 2023.

Q: What if I have an existing bench warrant for unpaid traffic tickets?

A: The bill requires that effective Jan. 1, 2023, every court in the state must cancel outstanding bench warrants issued to people for failing to appear in court to respond to traffic citations that are decriminalized in the bill. It also calls on the Central Repository for Nevada Records of Criminal History to remove from its database the records of bench warrants issued for such matters.

Lawmakers considering bill to ensure rural counties appoint public defenders independently from the judiciary

Lawmakers are considering a bill meant to ensure rural counties comply with a 2008 state Supreme Court order requiring every judicial district in the state to develop a plan for appointing indigent defense services independently from the judiciary. 

Across the state, there have long been issues with the legal defense provided to indigent defendants — people with low incomes who are unable to obtain qualified, competent legal counsel on their own without substantial hardship. The state has been sued in the past over its sparse public defender system in its rural counties and has dealt with disparities in indigent defense from county to county.

But Nevada has also dealt with issues with public defenders appointed by the judiciary. John Piro, a public defender in Clark County, explained that before the 2008 order, there were instances in which “baby lawyers” were assigned to serious cases of murder and sexual assault, and at other times, some attorneys were more interested in “keeping the judge happy than providing zealous representation,” both leading to ineffective representation of indigent defendants.

Following the Supreme Court order, both Clark County and Washoe County developed plans to create that independence by excluding the trial judge or justice of the peace from the selection of counsel and approval of attorney fees. However, those policies have not been adopted statewide.

Marcie Ryba, the executive director of the Department of Indigent Defense Services (established in 2019) and the presenter of the bill, AB480, said that the measure would be important for enforcing the Supreme Court order as rural counties prepare to submit plans for handling indigent defense services this September.

“Each plan, with the assistance of the Department of Indigent Defense Services, will set forth the county's process for selection of counsel, how they approve compensation of indigent defense providers and how they pay and improve case related expenses,” Ryba said during a hearing of the bill on Tuesday.

The bill builds off of a $2.4 million appropriation over the biennium for improving indigent defense services in certain rural counties. Those funds will be used by the department to address the state Supreme Court’s decision in Davis v. Nevada (2020), which stipulated that the state needed to eliminate economic disincentives for public defenders and establish minimum standards for indigent defense services.

The measure also aims to reduce the disincentives by eliminating caps on fees for appointed indigent defense counsel. Fee caps can create an economic disincentive, by leading to lawyers taking on excessive caseloads or resulting in under-researched cases by inexperienced counsel.

Members of the Clark County Defenders Union testified in support of the bill on Tuesday, after an amendment from the union meant to preserve pay parity with District Attorneys had been added. They argued that the measure would help ensure there are effective and zealous public defenders in the state.

“As of today, I have 169 open cases and 1,297 closed cases,” said Kara Simmons, a Clark County deputy public defender of three and a half years. “Our dedication to our clients is what brings us into this office outside normal working hours, what drives us to stay late into the night and come in on the weekends. We need to make sure we keep quality attorneys here that are dedicated to this level of service.”

The bill was approved by the Assembly on a 36-5 vote on Friday, and now heads to the Senate.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Despite changes, Las Vegas police argue traffic stop data collection bill would cost millions

A group of recently graduated police officer sits on stage.

A bill 18 years in the making would require state law enforcement agencies to collect and analyze traffic stop data, but Las Vegas police say the measure would cost them millions of dollars. 

The Senate Finance Committee on Monday heard Sen. Dallas Harris’ (D-Las Vegas) bill SB236, which would also establish an early warning system for finding police officers who display “bias indicators,” a concept that first came up during the 2003 legislative session.  

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) at first indicated that the bill would cost the agency an estimated $22.6 million for the biennium to implement, but Harris said the agency informally, through emails, had submitted an updated fiscal note that would bring down that amount to about $7 million after the bill was amended to only include traffic stops, not all kinds of stops. All other police agencies that had submitted fiscal notes on the bill withdrew them after the amendment was adopted.

Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist with LVMPD, said that the agency supports the policy behind the bill and that it understands the importance of gathering data. LVMPD’s fiscal note only shows the cost of officers potentially working overtime as a result of filling out the required forms to input the data after traffic stops. Callaway said the agency expects the data input to average 15 minutes per stop which would result in 314,695 work hours per year.

LVMPD is not suggesting hiring new officers to make up the difference in time or coverage. Callaway said that LVMPD’s chief financial officer estimated that if the bill was passed, the agency would need to hire 43 officers at a cost of $5 million to maintain current staffing ratios.

“Everything that an officer is doing, we have a limited time during the day, and our main focus is handling calls for service, reducing crime, when people call the police they expect an officer to respond in a timely manner,” he said. “And if an officer is taken an extra 15 minutes on a car stop to fill out a data card...that makes our response time longer, and decreases an officer's ability to engage in other proactive activity.”

But Harris said she does not believe the amount of time it would take the officer to fill out the data would affect the job and the time to do other tasks or respond to calls of service. 

“It could be a minute where they were in rest, waiting to catch someone, that is that additional minute that they're taking. It's not necessarily going to have to take away from them doing something else,” she said. 

Harris also said she has gone “through pains” to work with the Department of Public Safety, which oversees agencies such as the Nevada Highway Patrol, to ensure the traffic stop data collection system could be at the state level so each police jurisdiction would not have to create its own system and the data could be centralized.

The committee did not vote on the measure during the meeting.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

$2 million price tag divides correctional officials and lawmakers over bill enrolling released prisoners in Medicaid

Guards walk inside High Desert State Prison as seen on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

Lawmakers and correctional officials ended up at odds last week over a fiscal note attached to a measure aimed at enrolling soon-to-be released prisoners in the state Medicaid program.

AB358, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), would in theory help alleviate medical expenses that the Nevada Department of Corrections currently covers with general fund dollars by signing up eligible members for Medicaid before release, Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen said as she presented the bill Tuesday during an Assembly Ways and Means Committee meeting. 

"Instead of us paying for 30 days cash of people's medical [expenses], they would be covered under Medicaid," Nguyen said. "It would also help with the continuity of care because they would be set up, they would have providers that we would be able to work with ... and have that kind of continuity of care that is required for them to be successful once they are released."

But a fiscal note submitted by the Department of Corrections that estimated the program's cost as close to $2 million over the next two years ground the discussion to a halt. 

NDOC Statewide Reentry Administrator Elizabeth Dixon-Coleman said that the state releases about 6,000 prison inmates annually, and that the state prison system needed the money to pay for increased personnel, operating systems and equipment expenses necessary to establish a program that will process roughly 460 Medicaid applications a month.

"We do not have an electronic processing component to this. We don't have the infrastructure nor the supporting abilities to do this," Dixon-Coleman said.

Budget committee Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) pushed back against the addition of the fiscal note, saying the state’s existing Medicaid program should be able to address any cost concerns.

"Medicaid does eligibility. That is their life. That is what they do. It seems to me as though we're recreating the wheel here in creating program officers to do eligibility when Medicaid currently does eligibility," Carlton said. "Is there a way within the Medicaid regime to allow these inmates to access that in a safe and secure way ... and take NDOC out of the middle for a portion of this and have Medicaid do the thing that they do so well?"

The NDOC and Division of Welfare and Supportive Services have created a pilot project to test out the eligibility process, division chief of programs operations Joe Garcia told the committee. Though the division has considered shortening the roughly 20-page paper application and has a call center that can take applications over the phone, there could be security issues with inmates applying for Medicaid over the phone, he said.

Frierson said similar programs without attached costs exist, including at the Clark County Detention Center. He added that inmates have to speak with their attorneys via phones, and that does not violate confidentiality laws.

"There are phones. It's not like they're sending homing pigeons out. They have to be able to talk to their attorneys, and they have to be able to do it in private," Frierson said. "This would seem to me to be an opportunity to defray costs of medical expenses as folks are transitioning out. And I'm just a little surprised at the reluctance, especially recognizing that there have been efforts to address this for some time now."

Though Dixon-Coleman cited concerns about HIPPA and security issues, Carlton said that she would have more worries around paper documentation and security than a phone call. Officials with the NDOC need to investigate other options and take Frierson's comment about a secure line and confidentiality to heart, she added.

"There's a little bit more work to be done on this. We'll follow up with the appropriate folks and see where we can go. And I'm sure you'll follow up with them also," Carlton said.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Lawmakers and advocates seek to keep youth offenders from adult criminal system through juvenile justice reforms

A wide variety of state and federal laws and policies treat minors differently from adults.

People must be 21 to buy alcohol. The youngest someone can be to enlist in the military is 17. In Nevada, a person must be 16 to apply for a full driver’s license. 

The differences have been perpetuated by case law, as well. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for minors, and in Graham v. Florida (2010), the court held that life-without-parole for non-homicide crimes is an unconstitutional punishment for minors.

Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas), a juvenile public defender in Clark County, notes that scientific evidence about child brain development substantiates these differences in treatment.

“I think there's more realization now that children aren't able to make decisions the way adults do,” Ohrenschall said. “And trying to hold children accountable to the same standards we hold adults is not fair.”

Lawmakers this session are seeking to further separate the juvenile justice system from the adult criminal justice system at nearly every level, with legislation aimed at reducing referrals into the system, promoting rehabilitation programs and housing young offenders separately.

“I think the big effort on our part was to try to either keep kids from getting in the system if we can,” Ohrenschall said. “And if they are in the system, to try to see if there can be programs that can keep them closer to home, closer to their community.”

The efforts of Ohrenschall, who chaired the Legislative Committee on Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice during the interim, and others have made the 2021 legislative session a particularly active one for the subject. More juvenile justice bills were introduced this year than in each of the 2019 and 2017 sessions.

Though the 2017 session featured sweeping legislation such as a bill that established the Juvenile Justice Oversight Commission and another that enacted the Juvenile Justice Bill of Rights, Holly Welborn, policy director for the ACLU of Nevada, said juvenile justice issues are often overlooked — adult criminal justice bills on the death penalty and police reform have been at the forefront of the Legislature this session.

“The issue of juvenile justice really gets pushed down in the broader conversation … amongst the very controversial adult criminal justice reform topics,” Welborn said.

Many of this year’s juvenile-focused bills have received broad support. Bills aimed at easing penalties for youth cannabis or alcohol possession, expanding record sealing for youth offenders and creating a new Miranda warning for minors all passed unanimously out of the Assembly.

“I think that a lot of my colleagues are concerned about the school to prison pipeline,” Ohrenschall said. “They want to try to see reform and see as much done as possible that can divert children from getting caught up in the system.”

Below is a roundup of the ongoing efforts to reform the juvenile justice system this session.

State Senator James Ohrenschall arrives on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Reducing points of contact and racial disparities

Nevada’s Juvenile Justice Oversight Commission — a body of 20-plus juvenile justice experts and stakeholders — has found that “African American youth are overrepresented at almost every contact point” in the juvenile justice system.

The commission’s racial and ethnic disparities report for the 2020 federal fiscal year, which ended September 30, 2020, found that while less than 15 percent of the state’s youth population was African American that year, the group made up more than 32 percent of the youth arrests. As the commission and the Division of Child and Family Services actively engage in efforts to reduce those disparities, lawmakers have introduced multiple bills aimed at helping children of color.

AB158, a bill from Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas), would significantly lighten penalties for minors who purchase or possess alcohol or cannabis, including prohibiting jail time and fees for first and second offenses.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Monroe-Moreno said she brought the bill forward on behalf of A’Esha Goins, an advocate in the cannabis industry and the mother of a young Black man, who “had seen how other young kids of color have been charged with possession of marijuana and or alcohol.”

Monroe-Moreno discussed the importance of being constructive with children who make mistakes, rather than strictly punitive, and recalled her own experiences growing up.

“In our household growing up, you got three chances,” she said. “If you were stupid enough to do something that third time, then you really got in trouble, but the first time was my mom explaining why this behavior was wrong.”

Assemblywoman Danielle Monroe-Moreno on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 during the fifth day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

For people under the age of 21 found guilty of a misdemeanor for possessing, consuming or purchasing alcohol or possessing less than one ounce of cannabis, the bill would replace misdemeanor penalties of up to six months jail time and up to a $1,000 fine with penalties of up to 24 hours of community service and a requirement to attend a meeting of a panel of victims injured by a person who was driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.

The bill would also revise the penalties for a second violation to require up to 100 hours of counseling or participation in an educational program, support group or treatment program.

The measure is intended to reduce the number of minors who enter into the state’s criminal justice system.

In 2019, more than 8,000 youth were arrested in Nevada, with possession of marijuana being the second most common charge. In 2020, the number of youth arrests declined by more than 2,000, and possession, sale, or use of an illegal drug dropped to the fourth most common charge.

“I do think this bill will help a lot of kids not get caught up in the system,” Ohrenschall said during the hearing. “And possibly just get the guidance they need without having to either be in court or in a detention facility.”

AB158 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Assembly on April 20 and awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

***

In the oversight commission’s racial disparities report, the group highlighted specific types of race-focused training for officers and dispatchers as a way to reduce disparities at the front end of the justice system. Though the report found that “police officers statewide generally receive training in racial profiling and implicit bias,” a bill this session is aimed at expanding that training.

SB108, created by the Nevada Youth Legislature, a program that allows a group of high school students to present one bill to the Legislature each session, would require all employees who interact with children in the juvenile justice system in the state to complete implicit bias and cultural competency training once every two years.

“It is urgent more so now than ever to address the inequality faced by minority youth within the Nevada juvenile justice system,” youth legislator Julianna Melendez said during an April 23 hearing. “I personally have friends who have been targeted by school police and treated differently compared to our white counterparts, specifically because of the color of their skin.”

Another youth legislator, Melekte Hailemeskel, shared how her worldview changed following the death of Trayvon Martin.

“From that day on, I began to see the world for what it truly was. My heart filled with fear every time my father stepped outside the house. I transitioned to fearing the police rather than feeling protected by them,” Hailemeskel said. “This bill gives the youth the opportunity to live life without fear of being victimized by implicit bias.”

The original version of the bill from the Youth Legislature would have mandated the training for all people employed in the criminal justice system; however, the amended version applies only to those employed in the juvenile justice system, such as juvenile public defenders, youth parole officers and school police officers.

The training would include explanations of the negative effects of implicit bias and the importance of understanding implicit bias, as well as cultural competency information focused on sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity and religion.

Kathryn Roose, a deputy administrator at the Division of Child and Family Services, said that the bill is aligned with the division’s goal of addressing racial disparities and noted that the agency would already have a process in place for implementing the required training.

SB108 STATUS: The bill passed 20-1 out of the Senate in mid-April and faces a possible vote in the Assembly.

New Miranda warning for minors

As other ongoing juvenile justice efforts attempt to limit entries into the system, Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) has introduced a bill that he hopes will help youth offenders better understand their rights when they are facing arrest.

AB132 would establish a plain-language Miranda warning system for minors. In the expanded list of disclosures, a police officer would have to say the following to a minor, before starting an interrogation:

  • You have the right to remain silent, which means you do not have to say anything to me unless you want to. It is your choice.
  • If you choose to talk to me, whatever you tell me I can tell a judge in court.
  • You have the right to have your parent with you while you talk to me.
  • You have the right to have a lawyer with you while you talk to me. If your family cannot pay for a lawyer, you will get a free lawyer. That lawyer is your lawyer and can help you if you decide that you want to talk to me.
  • These are your rights. Do you understand what I have told you?
  • Do you want to talk to me?
A Clark County School District Police officer monitors Western High School students after class on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The original Miranda warning was established through the U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona (1966). The case held that police cannot question defendants in custody until they are made aware of their rights. Once those rights have been explained, defendants can voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently waive their rights and agree to answer questions or make a statement.

During a hearing of the bill in early May, Flores said the bill came from the idea that children typically do not knowingly and intelligently waive their rights because they do not have a full understanding of what rights they are entitled to.

Flores explained that he tested the new warning language used in the bill by giving it to teachers at Manuel J. Cortez Elementary School and the K-12 school, West Preparatory Academy, both located in Las Vegas, and having those teachers read both the current and proposed language to children.  

“This language that is in Assembly Bill 132 seemed to really go further into the understanding and comprehension of a child,” Flores said during the hearing.

Flores also said that the case law established by Miranda v. Arizona only set the bare minimum and that the state can go beyond that minimum by creating a new set of warnings that is easier for children to understand.

John Piro, a public defender in Clark County, explained that many police officers carry cards that have the Miranda warning language on them, so officers would not need to memorize all of the revised wording.

Piro also said that even if officers are unsure whether the person being taken into custody is an adult or minor, they could recite the new Miranda warning for minors because the revised language fulfills the legal requirements for all people.

AB132 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Assembly on April 19 and awaits a possible vote on the Senate floor.

Limiting direct file

Juvenile justice advocates have long sought to keep youth offenders within the juvenile system and out of the adult criminal justice system — for certain crimes, a prosecutor may override the jurisdiction of a juvenile court by filing charges against a minor in an adult criminal court in a process known as “direct file.”

AB230, sponsored by Assemblyman C.H. Miller (D-North Las Vegas), would prohibit the mandatory direct file process for children — aged 16 and up at the time of the offense —  who were charged with sexual assault involving violence or an offense or attempted offense involving the use or threatened use of a firearm.

During a hearing of the bill in April, Miller called the measure “another big step forward in giving some of our most troubled youth a chance to live a productive life.”

The bill would still permit jurisdiction of the adult court for cases that do not involve “delinquent” acts, such as murder or attempted murder (if the offender was at least 16 years old), some felonies and any offense committed after the person had been convicted of a previous criminal offense.

Miller said that direct file laws were originally created as a response to narratives about heightened youth crime in the 1990s, and he called on other lawmakers to “right the wrongs” created by those laws.

“Much of this legislation stemmed from the devastating narrative that a monstrous wave of mythical creatures known as ‘super predators’ — impulsive, remorseless, elementary school youngsters who packed guns instead of lunches would take over,” he said at a March hearing. “Today, we all know that narrative wasn't true. And it led to more problems than it could have ever solved.”

Kelly Jones, a public defender in Clark County, said that youth sent to adult facilities are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and to commit suicide and have higher rates of recidivism.

Jagada Chambers, a rights restoration coordinator with a civic engagement advocacy group called Silver State Voices, also pointed out the disparate impact of direct file. Chambers said that of the 219 youths directly filed to the adult system in Clark County since 2013, roughly 200 were children of color.

However, the bill still faces an uphill battle because of its associated costs. A fiscal note from the Department of Health and Human Services states that more resources would be needed to house the increased number of minors that would no longer go to the Department of Corrections. The corrections department estimates the bill would save the agency close to $300,000 over the upcoming biennium.

The estimated cost to Clark County, the only county in the state to have direct files recorded in the past five years, though, would be more than $6.5 million over the next two years — that cost would come from a combination of increased staffing, mental health resources, food and nursing.

The bill also would require the Legislature’s interim juvenile justice committee to conduct a study on the need for and cost of housing young offenders awaiting certification for criminal proceedings as an adult. Miller said the study is necessary because the infrastructure and resources necessary to completely eliminate direct files are not currently available in the state.

AB230 STATUS: Though the measure is exempt from legislative deadlines because of its fiscal impact, the bill has not been discussed since its April 21 hearing. There has been broad support for the measure, however, as 30 lawmakers have signed onto the bill as primary sponsors or co-sponsors.

Jurisdiction over juvenile cases

A bill introduced on behalf of the Nevada Supreme Court, SB7, would also contribute to transferring greater jurisdiction to the state’s juvenile courts.

The bill would ensure that a juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction in cases in which it is alleged that a minor who is the adverse party to an order for protection has violated a condition of the order. A protective order is typically issued to protect a certain person or entity from harassment, abuse or sexual assault.

The juvenile court would only maintain jurisdiction for violations that involve delinquent acts, meaning some acts, such as murder, would not fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

During the initial hearing of the bill in early February, John McCormick, an administrator for the state’s Supreme Court, said the legislation is meant to establish statutory clarity where none exists and create a uniform system for jurisdiction across the state.

SB7 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate in mid-April and next awaits a vote on the Assembly floor.

Juvenile Court Hearing Master Soonhee "Sunny" Bailey on the bench during autism specialty court on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Changes to juvenile housing

Youth offenders certified as adults are housed by the Department of Corrections at Lovelock Correctional Center, a policy that has long been a concern for youth justice advocates, such as Welborn.

“My very first day with the ACLU of Nevada, the first call that I took was a call with a national organization to talk about the boys who are housed in Lovelock and the conditions that they're living in, the inhumane conditions that they're living in, how inappropriate those conditions are for youth,” Welborn said.

Two different Department of Justice investigations announced this year have highlighted issues with the state’s methods of housing youth offenders. One investigation is examining whether staff at two state correctional facilities — Summit View Youth Center and Nevada Youth Training Center — use pepper spray in a manner that violates youth’s rights under the Constitution. The other investigation is examining whether the state unnecessarily institutionalized children with behavioral health conditions in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As youth advocates and lawmakers seek to improve housing conditions for youth offenders, several bills introduced on behalf of the juvenile justice committee this session would make significant changes to housing policies.

One bill, SB365, would require the state to develop a pilot program for housing youth offenders convicted as adults in a child and family services division facility, rather than in an adult correctional facility. 

Welborn said that legislation and other bills that address youth housing are important because of the differences between minors and adults and the time it takes for the youth brain to fully mature.

“Most of these young people will be released at some point in time,” she said. “So ensuring that they have the adequate therapeutic services, educational opportunities, exercise, etc. for their full healthy development, in order to ensure that they will be successful when they leave. And that has to be the right types of interventions and treatment that is age appropriate.”

In past years, there have been roughly 20 youth offenders, at any given time, held at the Lovelock Correctional Center because they were certified as adults in the criminal justice system. The pilot program would move eight of those offenders to the Summit View Youth Center, operated by the child and family services division.

The division estimates the financial impact of the pilot program to be more than $2.3 million over the 2021-23 biennium, with costs based on the projected need to add more beds and staff.

SB365 STATUS: With the costs attached to the bill, the measure next faces a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee; however, no action has been taken since the bill  was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 8. There are no future hearings scheduled for the legislation.

Two other bills would work collectively with SB365 to address housing for youthful offenders.

SB357, a bill from the juvenile justice committee, would require the Department of Corrections to track expenses related to housing youth offenders, meaning the department would need to report all costs associated with the minors living at Lovelock Correctional Center.

SB356, another bill from the interim committee, would require the oversight commission to study the feasibility of housing youthful offenders, who are between 18 and 24 years old and who will be released from prison before reaching 25 years of age, separately from offenders who will continue to be incarcerated past age 24.

“It's also tough to go from taking a kid from the juvenile system and then shocking them into this very hardened adult system, when there's really something in between that works better for those young offenders,” Welborn said. “So that's why all of these bills are a part of a lot larger, broader conversation.”

SB357 STATUS: The bill passed 20-0 out of the Senate on April 13 and faces a potential vote on the Assembly floor.

SB356 STATUS: Though the bill is exempt from legislative deadlines because of its small financial impact, the measure has not been picked up by the Senate Finance Committee since being passed by the Judiciary committee on April 8.

Treating youth found incompetent

One bill from the juvenile justice committee, SB366, would address housing for a narrow portion of youth offenders: those ruled incompetent.

Roose, from the child and family services division, explained that the state does not have in place a facility to help restore children to competency. In a note attached to the bill, Ross Armstrong, administrator of the division, wrote that the agency “does not have the qualified staffing to serve the population with developmental disabilities” — children ruled incompetent typically suffer from an untreated mental illness or developmental disability.

“This is a really complex bill on a complex service and system that would need to be developed in collaboration with sister agencies,” Roose said. “It's just a system that doesn't really exist in Nevada. But, again, we have the opportunity to study and maybe build a solution.”

The actual impact of the bill remains unclear because of differences between the latest version of the bill and comments from the division. However, in line with Roose’s comments, a fiscal note from the division indicates the bill would fund a study to determine the resources needed for rehabilitating incompetent youth offenders.

SB366 STATUS: Though a fiscal exemption has kept the bill alive, the measure has not been acted on since passing out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in early April.

Diverting more youth

One other bill from the juvenile justice committee in line with the efforts to improve housing, SB385, is meant to keep more youth offenders out of the deep end of the juvenile justice system and out of state-controlled correctional facilities.

Though the measure does not seek to directly divert more youth offenders away from state facilities, it would require that the division conduct a study during the interim on which activities and programs help reduce the number of minors committed to state facilities.

“The spirit of this bill is to take savings in our DCFS facility budget, through savings that we achieve through reducing the number of youth coming to us,” Roose said. “And take those funds and divert them to the counties to build up their service array, with the theory being that the more resources that the counties have to provide the services to youth that they need, the less likely they will ever come into a DCFS facility.”

SB385 STATUS: The bill was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on May 12 and next awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

Sealing records

As lawmakers continue to address the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a bill from Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner (R-Reno) would help some juvenile offenders avoid the repercussions of having a criminal record when they become an adult.

The bill, AB251, would establish provisions for a juvenile’s record to be automatically sealed at age 18 and allow those who are 18 or older to petition the court for the expungement or destruction of their juvenile record for any infraction, arrest or crime that was committed as a child that was equal to a misdemeanor or less.

“Young offenders may face serious consequences and obstacles as a result of their juvenile record,” Krasner said during a hearing of the bill on May 10. “A juvenile adjudication can prevent a young person from receiving financial aid for higher education, admissions to colleges, getting a job, joining the military or being admitted into certain licensed professions.”

Krasner called the measure a chance to provide young people with “a fresh start and a second chance,” pointing out that minors are unable to make logical, informed decisions in stressful situations because their brains are not yet fully developed.

AB251 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Assembly on April 20 and awaits a vote in the Senate.

Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner holds a press conference on a human trafficking bill on March 2, 2021 at the Legislature in Carson City. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

Structural changes within the juvenile justice system

Though much of the juvenile justice legislation this session focuses on youth offenders themselves, lawmakers also have introduced a few bills that affect the greater justice system and the operations of the child and family services division.

AB448, a bill from the Governor’s Finance Office, would designate criminal investigators employed by the division as category II peace officers. Those investigators were not previously categorized as peace officers in statute. Other officers designated under category II include other criminal investigators, youth parole officers and school police officers.

AB448 STATUS: The measure is exempt from legislative deadlines; however, it has not yet received a formal hearing in any Assembly committee.

***

Another pair of bills would affect workers within the juvenile justice system. SB21, a bill introduced on behalf of the division, would create a uniform process for background checks for employee hiring across different juvenile agencies and facilities in the state. The other bill, SB317, introduced by Ohrenschall, would allow juvenile justice employees to receive back pay for unpaid leave administered during an investigation, if the employee is found not guilty or has their charges dismissed.

SB21 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate on April 20 and next faces a potential vote on the Assembly floor.

SB317 STATUS: After passing out of the Senate on 12-9 vote in mid-April, the bill awaits a vote in the full Assembly.

***

SB132, sponsored by Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), would appropriate $10 million from the General Fund to the Eighth Judicial District in Clark County for support services, including educational support services at The Harbor, a juvenile justice assessment center.

SB132 STATUS: The bill is exempt from legislative deadlines but has not yet received a hearing.

Future justice efforts

Four years ago, lawmakers passed AB472, which established the Juvenile Justice Oversight Commission (JJOC). This session, lawmakers are considering a bill that would, as Roose described the measure, “put a spotlight on the great work of the JJOC.”

SB398 would require the commission to submit a report to the Legislature with an update on the progress of its 5-year strategic plan. The report would include recommendations for any legislation related to both the plan and disparities in the juvenile justice system, such as racial disparities.

SB398 STATUS: The bill passed out of the Senate on a 20-0 vote in mid-April and next faces a possible vote in the Assembly.

While SB398 is meant to bring forward more legislation aimed at improving the juvenile justice system, another bill discussed this session could hamper reform efforts, according to Welborn.

AB443, an Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee bill, would overhaul the structure of interim legislative committees. The bill would, in part, eliminate the interim juvenile justice committee and instead establish a joint interim judiciary committee.

Welborn expressed concern that the initial version of the bill could draw attention away from the work being done to help young people. However, an amended version of the measure would require the interim judiciary committee to allocate five bill draft requests specifically for juvenile justice issues. 

“I fear that we lose that momentum, if we abolish that interim committee, or at minimum, don’t establish … some sort of subcommittee to handle juvenile justice issues,” she said. “If we don't, then they're not going to get the attention they need.”

AB443 STATUS: The measure is exempt from legislative deadlines and was last passed out of the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee on May 13.

As Welborn, among other advocates, fights to garner greater attention for youth justice issues, she noted that reform can take lots of time and work, and she recalls a quote from Ohrenschall, another youth advocate.

“We come to the Legislature wanting revolution, but what we get is evolution,” she said.

Sisolak, Democrats spike efforts to repeal the death penalty in Nevada

Nevada leaders are scrapping a bill that would have banned capital punishment in the state, dashing the hopes of advocates who had celebrated that the measure had made more progress than ever before in the Legislature.

In a statement on Thursday, Gov. Steve Sisolak said there is “no path forward” for efforts by Democratic lawmakers to abolish capital punishment, striking a blow to the hopes of criminal justice reform advocates that the Democratic trifecta in the Legislature and governor’s office would finally take steps to end the death penalty.

“I’ve been clear on my position that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, but I believe there are severe situations that warrant it,” the governor said in a statement. “I understand there are those who will be disappointed by this outcome, however the process of determining which crimes are severe enough to warrant this punishment deserves thoughtful consideration.”

The bill, AB395, passed out of the Assembly in April on a 26-16 vote with all Republicans in opposition. But key decision makers in the Senate — including two top leaders whose day jobs are working for Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who is a prominent opponent of abolition — did not schedule the measure for a hearing ahead of a key Friday deadline for bills to pass from their second house committee. 

Asked about criticism that the Legislature is not living up to its commitments to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system — racial disparity is a major concern raised in the death penalty debate — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) defended the body’s work and pointed to action taken on other issues including bail reform and police use of force.

“People who live in our communities want to have a fair system. They want to know that if they find themselves or their family members in there that is fair. They want to know that when they're victims of crime, that people are going to be treated fairly and their voices are going to be heard,” she told reporters in a brief interview after Sisolak made his announcement. “We’ve done a lot of work here in the state of Nevada and I would encourage anyone who thinks we're not doing enough to take a look at other states and ask whether or not we are, because I know when I talk to colleagues from other states, they are amazed that, that we are able to make such progress.” 

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said in a statement that advocates had worked on potential amendments to restrict but not fully abolish the death penalty, but acknowledged that it had been a “difficult task with all of the many considerations that go into these cases.”

“While we are disappointed that we could not get across the finish line this session on AB395, we have to accept that there is a process and many of our priorities don't ultimately come to fruition,” he said in the statement. “We will continue working on policies we believe are sound and continue working with our colleagues on meaningful reform to the inequities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), who presented the bill and chairs the committee that sponsored it, said it was time to refocus and move on to other tasks of the session.

"There's disappointment, but ... we live to fight another day and I certainly don't feel discouraged," he said. "Certainly doesn't take away with some of the other really good criminal justice reform measures that we've been doing over the last three sessions, and I just hope that's not lost. I mean, we really have made substantial progress. This was one piece of that."

Advocates had turned up the pressure on lawmakers, holding a press conference early this week to argue that capital punishment disproportionately affects people of color.

“This past summer, there were promises made about reforms around racial justice issues,” Yvette Williams, chair of the Clark County Black Caucus, said at the press conference. “We're looking very closely and paying attention to not only what's voted on the floor, but what bills come before each committee ... who's deciding what's going to be heard."

Supporters of the bill aired their grievances during the public comment period at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would have been the place where the bill was heard. Officials with the ACLU of Nevada said the blame for future executions would lie with lawmakers who opted not to hear the bill and end the practice.

"Party leaders in the Senate and Governor’s office have shown that their commitment to meaningful reform is nothing but lip service," said Athar Haseebullah, the group's executive director. "The people of Nevada are ready to end the death penalty. They deserve to have a voice, and they deserve true leadership in the Legislature rather than just political cronyism. This is an embarrassment.”

In spite of polls, advertising and other lobbying activities, Sisolak maintained he was uncomfortable with repealing the death penalty in extreme cases such as mass shootings.

The demise of the bill comes as the Clark County district attorney’s office is pushing for the execution for Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Prosecutors want to schedule an execution in late July after the state prison director testified that the system needs at least four months to prepare for a lethal injection.

The execution would be Nevada's first enactment of capital punishment in 15 years. The state came close to executing Scott Dozier in 2018, but a protracted legal fight about the drugs in the lethal injection delayed the execution, and Dozier died by suicide in 2019.

Reporters Riley Snyder and Tabitha Mueller contributed to this report. Updated at 2:59 p.m. on 5/13/21 to add comment from ACLU, Yeager.

TitleMax and state argue over short-term loan term limits before the Supreme Court

The exterior of a MoneyTree branch

Like many Nevadans, Las Vegas resident Ray Diaz took out a loan with lender TitleMax to help pay bills while he was unemployed during the pandemic.

But the high interest rate dried out his unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, resulting in a “merry-go-round” of debt, he said. Diaz said he had previously taken loans from TitleMax and paid them back within four months, but this time around, he had his contract “extended” through a process called refinancing, which resulted in the interest continuing to rack up. 

“I said ‘let's go and pay some of the bills off.’ But it made it worse, and it put me behind on other bills because the money I did get I was using to pay the principal and the interest,” Diaz told The Nevada Independent. “It dropped my credit score. It was a domino effect that really screwed me all the way around.”

Diaz’s situation is the premise of the most recent case that challenges the creative use of title loan refinancing as a way to circumvent the 210-day loan term limit allowed by the state. On Wednesday, the Nevada Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the third case that’s been appealed since 2016 involving TitleMax and the Nevada Department of Business and Industry’s Financial Institutions Division (FID), which regulates high-interest lenders including TitleMax. 

Nevada law allows for businesses to extend short-term, high-interest loans of various types to individuals, but sets a generally strict 210-day time limit to avoid the massive accumulation of interest. The law allows lenders to give grace periods after the 210-day timeframe, but only under the terms that a lender does not offer any new loan agreement or charge the customer additional interest.

Unlike Dollar Loan Center or other well-known “payday lenders,” TitleMax offers what are called title loans, which are extended after a person exchanges the title of their vehicle for collateral. State law prohibits title loans from exceeding the value of a car, but state regulators argued in court that the company’s “refinancing” practices violated the intent of the law.

“While (state law) specifically limits the term of a title loan to a maximum of 210 days, and explicitly prohibits the extension of that time period under any name, TitleMax’s loan product here has no fixed end date for payment and extends the payment due date on the original principal well beyond the 210-day outer limit … ensuring that TitleMax collects more than 210 days of amortized interest,” state Solicitor General Heidi Parry Stern said.

Attorney Dan Polsenberg, representing TitleMax, told justices on Wednesday that refinancing is permissible for title loans because they are different from other loans that prohibit refinancing — namely because they hold the car as collateral. He argued that refinancing is explicitly prohibited in the case of payday loans and other high-interest loans, and the absence of a similar prohibition for title loans is enough to allow the practice. 

“Because it's different in kind, an extension is simply that — an extension of that loan. Counsel brought up that all these statutes talk about repayment, renewal, refinancing and consolidation,” Polsenberg said. “Well, certainly, the statute is recognizing that refinancing is not something prohibited unless it's expressly prohibited. Refinancing ... is the use of another loan to end this loan.”

TitleMax has been involved in two other appeals before the Supreme Court. In each case, TitleMax and the state have disagreed about the correct interpretation of Nevada’s title lending laws. A recurring issue is the limit on the length of time a title lender is allowed to charge interest. 

In a 2019 case, the court unanimously ruled that TitleMax broke state law by offering a “grace period” loan product that extended past the 210-day limit and charged additional interest. But the court did not punish the lending company because it decided TitleMax did not “willfully” violate the state statute around short-term loans.

The first appeal case between the state and TitleMax resulted in reversal and remand to the lower court in October of 2017 after the Supreme Court decided that the District Court erred in the ruling by dismissing TitleMax’s declaratory relief action. The case came after TitleMax received a “needs improvement” rating from FID and the lender then took to the District Court seeking interpretation of the statutes cited in FID’s assessment. 

The Supreme Court did not make an immediate decision in the latest case on Wednesday. 

Meanwhile, Diaz said he has to make a decision this week. If he does not pay this month’s amount of $1,440 towards his loan, he would have to give TitleMax his car, leaving him and his family with just one vehicle. But his mortgage is $1,470. 

“There is a possibility I can try to come up with it, but then it's like an anchor around my neck for six more months [to continue paying the loan], and forbearance ends pretty soon on my home, so I gotta make a decision … What's more important? Obviously, the house would be,” he said.

Contentious bill banning ‘ghost gun’ assembly kits sees heated hearing

Various handguns as seen on display inside Discount Firearms & Ammo in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2018.

Despite moving forward without contentious language allowing casinos to ban firearms on their property, hot-button legislation seeking to ban “ghost gun” firearm assembly kits elevated familiar battle lines on Tuesday.

In a roughly three-hour hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, lawmakers heard details of AB286, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) — a survivor of the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and hundreds injured. In the years since the shooting, Jauregui has become a vocal advocate for gun control in the Legislature — sponsoring a bill in 2019 banning “bump stock” modifications and allowing courts to issue extreme risk protection orders (so-called “red flag” laws) that allow for preemptive seizing of a person’s firearms.

The bill has attracted the typical amount of partisan fervor and impassioned testimony on firearm-related legislation — attracting the most opinions of any bill this legislative session and passing out of the Assembly on a party-line 26-16 vote in April. Still, Jauregui said the legislation was a necessary step to address the “rising epidemic of unmarked untraceable guns, also known as ghost guns.”

“We have made progress in the years since then, but we've also continued to see violent incidents that have left Nevadans questioning the safety of our community,” she said.

As currently written, the bill would generally prohibit a person from possessing, purchasing, transporting or receiving any unfinished frame or receiver of a firearm, or assembling any firearm not imprinted with a serial number. A person found violating those provisions would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor, with repeat offenses punishable by a Category D felony.

The bill allows for some exemptions, including for a person who is a licensed firearms importer or manufacturer, part of a law enforcement agency, or if the unfinished frame or receiver has already been imprinted with a serial number. It would also exempt any firearm that has been rendered permanently inoperable or is considered an antique or a collector’s item.

Advocates pointed to a sizable number of “ghost guns” recovered in the past year (10,000 nationwide in 2020, according to an estimate by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), and said the lack of laws and regulations meant it was easier for felons and other prohibited persons to obtain firearms.

Brady Campaign representative Steve Lindley, a former chief of California’s Bureau of Firearms who helped present the bill, showed committee members an example of an unfinished frame as part of a firearm assembly kit sold by Polymer80, a Nevada-based company that sells a popular "Buy Build Shoot," assembly kit. He said it took between 20 to 40 minutes to build the firearm, and that law enforcement every year recovered an increasingly large number of “ghost guns.”

“This problem is here, it is growing and is about to become uncontrollable for government and law enforcement to take action, unless we do something about it right now,” he said during the hearing.

The proposed legislation attracted opposition from Republican lawmakers, the National Rifle Association, law enforcement agencies and a host of firearm enthusiasts, who called the measure unclear and unfairly punitive to hobbyists without a clear rationale or way to show that it would be effective.

Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Gardnerville) questioned whether the bill would force him or others to relinquish decades-old firearms still in use that were produced before serial numbers were required. Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said he didn’t see how a serial number requirement would “magically stop” felons or criminals from obtaining or possessing firearms.

“The idea that there are these criminal elements out there that are going into their garages...and making barrels and then attaching them to polymer handles and then bypassing the entire background check process, it lacks common sense,” he said.

Eric Spratley, representing the Nevada Sheriffs' and Chiefs' Association, also called in to oppose the bill on procedural grounds — saying the provisions of the legislation did not give police clear instructions on how to implement or enforce the new provisions. He said the association had proposed a procedural amendment focused on implementation that was ultimately rejected, which left the association opposed to the measure.

“If it’s confusing here, and the presenters aren’t clear on what the bill does and when, how are our Nevada law enforcement officers expected to know when to take proper enforcement action?” he said.

The original version of the bill included language aimed at giving major casino resorts a greater ability to prohibit firearms on their property, but those sections were amended out amid concerns from criminal justice advocates that those provisions could disproportionately affect minority populations, according to the Associated Press.

Despite the amendment, battle lines on the bill didn’t budge. Gun control advocates and Democratic-aligned groups said the measure would help curb gun violence in the state, with firearm advocates warning that it would arbitrarily punish lawful gun owners and do little to stop prohibited persons from obtaining firearms.

Many supporters of the bill said they were disappointed that many recovered “ghost guns” were assembled from parts manufactured and sold from the Dayton-based Polymer80 — which was raided by federal agents in December 2020 on suspicion that it was illegally manufacturing and distributing firearms.

“This is not a statistic that our state can be proud of,” Brady Nevada representative Christiane Brown said during the hearing. “Responsible gun owners don't need untraceable weapons, responsible gun owners register their firearms legally, and they purchase their weapons from licensed sellers.

The bill is advancing alongside federal efforts by President Joe Biden’s administration and the U.S. Department of Justice to expand the definition of “firearm” as a way to crack down on “ghost guns.” The president ordered the Department of Justice last month to crack down on firearm kits after mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado.

The Department of Justice filed a proposed rule on “ghost guns” on Friday, that would require gun retailers to run background checks before selling any firearm assembly kits, and requiring them to include a serial number on firearm kit parts or any other nonserialized firearm they intend to sell.

David Pucino, a senior staff attorney at Giffords Law Center, said AB286 was designed to go further than the proposed federal rule and capture additional firearm assembly kits, describing the legislation as “concurrent and would be mutually supportive.”

National Rifle Association lobbyist Dan Reid countered, saying that the bill as written would mostly burden hobbyists who build their own firearms or owners of older firearms without a clear public safety rationale.

“This world is far bigger than that and will go after firearms that have been made for personal use by law-abiding people for a long time,” Reid said.

After slashing budget last year, lawmakers approve restoring funding to ‘Going Home Prepared’ recidivism program for parolees

Ely State Prison

Legislators in a joint budget subcommittee on Thursday approved restoring full funding to the Going Home Prepared program, a successful recidivism reduction program that had its funding axed during the 2020 special session.

Restoration of program funding will cost about $228,000 annually for the program housed within the Division of Parole and Probation. Though lawmakers didn’t comment on the funding restoration during their Thursday meeting, leaders of the state parole division have previously touted the program as an extremely helpful tool in reducing recidivism.

“The initial premise was if we assist people in establishing residence, getting their foot into the community and provide a foothold for them to be more stable, we would position them for better long term success, but in the short run, it'd be less cost to the state because outside is cheaper than inside,” Parole and Probation Division head Thomas Lawson told lawmakers during an initial budget hearing in February.

The program, which was transferred to the parole division in 2017 from the Department of Corrections, is aimed at providing financial support for soon-to-be-released inmates who lack support from family sponsors or other resources as they transition back into society. Released inmates in the program aren’t handed a check — the money is instead paid directly to a service provider.

The division increased the maximum per-inmate support level from $500 to $1,000 in 2019, saying it allowed for more flexibility and access to more programs that could provide additional “wraparound services” for released inmates, as opposed to just paying for a week or two of housing.

“We found that if we measured out the dollars per day and incorporated analysis of the services provided rather than just the ‘roof and a cot’ methodology, then there was a lot more bang for the buck by increasing the amount per offender, more stabilizing circumstances,” Lawson told lawmakers in February.

Lawson said the program helped 336 parolees in the 2018 fiscal year, and 503 in the 2019 fiscal year, but the numbers have since dropped because of the decision by state lawmakers last year to slash all funding to the program as part of the $1.2 billion in cuts made during the special session to balance the state’s budget.

Lawson said the program had seen positive results — pointing to a 211-parolee sample conducted over a three month period following their release from incarceration. 

Parolees receiving benefits through the program had generally higher rates of employment (49 percent for those in the program after 30 days, versus 18 percent for those who were not enrolled) and lower rates of recidivism — about a quarter of program enrollees were arrested or absconded within 90 days of release, compared to 55 percent for those not enrolled.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

After more than a year without visitation, families remain hesitant to visit inmates because of restrictions

Inmates in the yard of a correctional facility.

After not seeing her husband in person for 14 months, Las Vegas resident Nicole Tate was able to schedule an appointment to visit him at High Desert State Prison in May. But the visit won’t be the same as it was prior to the pandemic.

“There's a very real possibility that I'm not going to get to hug my husband for a very long period of time, when it's already been so long,” Tate, a member of the inmate advocacy group Return Strong, told The Nevada Independent a few days before her scheduled visit. “It’s honestly the most upsetting thing of it all.”

The Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) suspended visitation across prisons in March 2020 to protect staff and inmates from the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the coronavirus has swept through the state’s correctional facilities, resulting in more than 5,000 cases among staff and inmates and 53 deaths among prisoners; the department attributed some of the case growth to issues with its own staff, including burnout and COVID fatigue.

The department reopened visitation for inmates on May 1, with significant safety restrictions in place, including limits on the age of visitors, number of allowed visitors per inmate and physical contact between inmates and visitors. Those restrictions have left some Nevadans feeling reluctant to visit their incarcerated loved ones, but the agency has said the return to normal visitation depends on whether a significant majority of inmates within each of the state’s prisons becomes vaccinated.

At High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, inmates and their families were allowed to have a brief hug and kiss during visits before the pandemic, Tate said, but neither form of contact is allowed under the first phase of the visitation reopening plan. The original policy was so special for Tate, though, that she even had it tattooed on herself.

“They tell everybody ‘one brief hug, one brief kiss.’ That's how it is when you leave. That's all you get,” Tate said. “It sounds crazy that he actually had somebody draw it up, and it's tattooed right here. This is my life right here. It says ‘One BK, One BH’... That's how we've lived our life. And now the thing is, we can't even get that, you know, simple little things.”

Tate said the no-contact policy was not enough to keep her from going to see her husband, but for other families, the safety restrictions have posed significant challenges.

During the first phase of the reopening plan, there is a limit of two visitors per visit with an inmate, which means Jen Graham, a Reno resident and mother of four children whose husband is incarcerated at Stewart Conservation Camp in Carson City, is unable to bring her whole family to visit. Graham’s husband has also been unable to meet the couple’s youngest child who turned 1-year-old in April.

“I found out I was pregnant two weeks before he was arrested,” Graham said. “They don't have video visitation where he's at, so he hasn't even seen his little girl move at this point. And it's just — it's pretty hard.”

The department is limiting visitors to those ages 5 and up and is requiring birth certificates — NDOC excluded those under 5-years-old “due to their developmental ability to comply with mask requirements,” according to the department’s visitation website. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that children ages 2 and older wear masks in public.

Graham’s ability to bring all of her children to visit her husband is also curbed by limitations on the frequency of visits. Though the department’s visitation website states that a facility’s administration decides whether its inmates are allowed visits once every two weeks or once each month, 16 of the 17 department facilities, including Stewart Conservation Camp, are only allowing one visit per month. Tonopah Conservation Camp does not specify what frequency of visits its inmates are allowed.

“If we wanted to all go visit him at this point, we're unable to do that as a family,” Graham said. “Currently, two of our children are in Indiana. And so, if we were to fly two of them out here, they wouldn't even be able to visit at the same time.”

The restrictions have led to a low level of demand for appointments so far. On May 7, a spokesperson for the department wrote in an email that 173 visits have been scheduled, with another 183 pending approval, through the first 10 days of the application period. The department houses roughly 11,000 inmates.

The scheduling site for the department’s largest facility, High Desert State Prison, which has a capacity of more than 4,000 inmates, shows that the prison has the capacity to handle thousands of visitors in a month across a variety of sessions spread out over every day of the week. However, few visitation slots are shown as booked, and the site shows that the prison has zero out of 40 visitor slots booked so far.

Prior to the pandemic, visits were held on a first-come, first-serve basis — rather than scheduled — so the department does not keep past data on its visitor volume.

Visits are also confined to a single table with inmates and visitors separated by a transparent partition or six feet of distance — a restriction that can be burdensome for some families.

Misty Stewart, a Carson City resident whose son is incarcerated at an NDOC facility, said there is not much she can do to stop her 7-year-old grandson from wanting to hug his father after not seeing him for more than a year. But the department has ruled that “visitors and/or children who become unmanageable, disruptive or fail to comply with safety protocols will have their visit terminated.”

The department has also stated that children’s play areas, toys and games will be unavailable under the first phase of the plan, which can also make visitation more difficult for families. Stewart said that her son and grandson were previously able to find “ways to be creative and to play and have these parental moments.”

“There are times when he has tears, we get lots of tears because he misses him, and he doesn't understand,” Stewart said of her grandson. “Kids don't understand why they can't have contact, why they can't call whenever they want or why they can't call back after they've missed a call.”

Challenges for the incarcerated

Family members with incarcerated loved ones also said that the year without visitation has been a significant challenge for those inside Nevada’s prisons, and the department’s leadership has acknowledged that difficulty.

“While the 14-month suspension of visiting was necessary to limit the spread of the virus into our facilities, the NDOC recognizes the emotional toll it has taken on the spouses, children and friends of the offenders,” Charles Daniels, the department’s director, said in a statement. “We recognize the importance of the support each family provides to incarcerated individuals.”

Sylvia Reyes, a Reno resident whose son is an inmate at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, said that her son has experienced a lot of frustration over the suspension of visitation.

“It's been a battle for him to stay positive and to stay out of trouble because of the anger of not having the contact with the family,” Reyes said. “I get real upset and very emotional when it comes to it, because he is my only child, and it's real hard.”

Graham said that her husband also has struggled with being shut off from physical contact.

“The hardest thing, obviously, is not being able to meet his daughter yet,” Graham said. “He started crying on the phone, and he's like, it's just, it's hard not being able to see all of our kids at once.”

The vaccination effort

Under the department’s phased visitation reopening plan, inmates and visitors will not be allowed to have physical contact until the third phase of the plan, which will kick in when a facility reaches an 80 percent vaccination rate among its inmates. At that point, safety restrictions on visitation will be removed, and facilities will revert to the standard policy that allows for brief physical contact, such as a handshake, hug or kiss, just before and immediately after visits.

However, some families have expressed concern that it would be a long time before that 80 percent threshold is met at certain facilities, such as High Desert State Prison.

In a press release on May 4, the department announced that more than 45 percent (5,187) of its roughly 11,000 inmates across the state have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The inmate vaccination rate has more than doubled since April 20 when the department’s reported numbers showed less than 20 percent of inmates had been at least partially vaccinated. 

Some smaller facilities are already on their way to passing the 80 percent vaccination rate threshold, according to the press release, including Casa Grande Transitional Housing and Northern Nevada Transitional Housing. Although those two facilities combined hold fewer than 250 inmates, according to 2020 data from the department, 100 percent of the inmates at both facilities have been at least partially vaccinated.

Despite the increasing vaccination numbers, signs of hesitancy remain. At the department’s largest facility, High Desert State Prison, just 24 percent of inmates have received at least the first dose, as of May 4. Additionally, Reyes and Stewart both said their sons did not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“As far as the COVID shot, my son denied it,” Reyes said. “He doesn't want to have it because of all the negative information they put on the news, blood clots, adverse reactions.”

Nicole Williams, a Dayton resident whose husband is an inmate at Warm Springs Correctional Center, noted that some inmates may be wary of the side effects of the vaccine.

“Another thing I think that a lot of the inmates talk about is the effects. They're in prison. We're out here if we get the shot, and we don't feel well,” Williams said. “To have to deal with it in there and the effects, and then even be charged for Tylenol or ibuprofen … That's just ridiculous.”

The effects of the public health crisis inside the prison system have created some distrust between inmates and the department. Reyes’s son, Graham’s husband and Williams’s husband each contracted COVID-19, and two of those cases came during the big outbreak at Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City — at one point in November, 90 percent of the facility’s population had tested positive for the virus.

Tate, who is an intensive care unit nurse, said she decided to get the vaccine after speaking with an infectious diseases specialist, and she thinks inmates would benefit from the opportunity to ask health professionals more questions about the vaccine.

In a statement, Daniels, the department’s director, said he was proud of the vaccination effort so far, and NDOC also announced plans for 10 vaccine clinics at facilities across the state, including a clinic at High Desert State Prison.

“We are proud of our staff and grateful to our community partners for successfully vaccinating such a large group in a relatively short time,” Daniels said.

As vaccination numbers across NDOC facilities remain below the 80 percent threshold to move to the final phase of the visitation reopening plan, the department has enacted stringent visitation guidelines to protect the prison population from the spread of COVID-19.

Visitors are required to arrive at least 45 minutes before their scheduled visit, in order to take a rapid COVID-19 test. If visitors test positive or exhibit “flu-like or concerning symptoms,” they will be denied entry.

Additionally, the enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing and the prohibition of physical contact are all meant to prevent new COVID-19 cases within NDOC facilities.

Difficulties in communicating

Some families also face significant challenges in communicating with incarcerated loved ones.

In order to mitigate the negative impact of suspending visitation on March 7, 2020, the department provided inmates with free phone calls. Calls placed to numbers inside the United States are typically 11 cents per minute for prepaid calls and 14 cents per minute for collect calls. Even with the free calls, though, issues with the phone systems within prisons can make calling a difficult mode of communication for many families.

Reyes said that because of the limited number of phones at Northern Nevada Correctional Center, some inmates may have to wait hours in order to place a call, and if a call is dropped or there is some disruption, then that allowed call time is lost.

“How does that compensate? I mean it, for not being able to talk to your mom, your wife, your child,” she said. “Some of these guys, they've got little kids, they've got new marriages, they've got young wives who don't understand this, and it's very frustrating. ‘Why aren't you calling me? Why aren't you this? Why aren't you that?’”

Safety protocols can also lead to a loss of communication for extended periods. Graham said that she didn’t talk to her husband for a few weeks after he contracted COVID-19. 

For Williams, the phone calls simply are not enough to make up for physical contact and in-person visitation.

“A voice is only one thing,” she said. “To be able to physically see somebody, even if it is once a month, I think that resonates.”