According to this recent story in The Las Vegas Sun, the Nevada legislature has just taken a significant step toward reactivating and substantially strengthening that state's currently defunct sentencing commission. As recounted in the article:
AB508 would revive a state sentencing commission that hasn't met since 2000, give that board subpoena powers, and allow it to bring recommendations to the 2009 legislature.
The bill also changes the makeup of that committee, adding a second representative from law enforcement as well as an inmate advocate. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously for the bill, which now needs approval from the full Senate before moving ahead.
The commission, which must meet within 60 days of the end of the legislative session, will revisit harsh sentencing laws passed in 1995 that have contributed to Nevada's overcrowded prisons.
Nevada joined a national trend of states creating tougher, mandatory punishments in the mid-1990s. This year, legislators are reviewing studies showing that those policies have resulted in the state housing large numbers of low-risk inmates.
Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty has criticized the "mandatory minimums," saying they result in skewed sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders.
Hardesty and state prisons chief Howard Skolnik told lawmakers again on Thursday that revisiting sentencing guidelines is critical to relieving the state's overburdened prison system.
"We have inhumane treatment of inmates," said Hardesty. "We have risk to corrections officers and inmates. We have risk of riots."
A powerful sentencing commission is critical to getting good information, and allowing the next legislature to make real change, he said.
Hardesty and Skolnik also updated the committee on the status of AB510, a proposal to offer more good-time credits to Nevada offenders, including retroactive credits. That bill could drop the prison population by about 1,500 offenders over the next two years.
The good-time credits would affect only the minimum sentence requirements. That means that while credits would make some inmates eligible for parole sooner, the final decisions about releases would be up to the parole board.
Both Senate and Assembly money committees have closed prisons budgets that set aside $3.3 million in anticipated savings from lower inmate populations. That money will be made available for more parole officers or treatment programs if the projections are correct, or can go back to the prison system if they turn out to be wrong.
Though New Jersey prides itself on its unduly deserved rep as perhaps the "bluest" of the blue states, I can't envision any member of our three branches of government taking such as prominent and forceful a stand on the importance and necessity of a sentencing commission as did Justice Hardesty. Good for him and good for Nevada. And how utterly pathetic that legislation to establish a permanent commission with clearly defined responsibilities continues to languish in the New Jersey Legislature.