Clark County Jail is Overcrowded: Déjà vu



The small Webster’s dictionary I keep at my desk where I do most of my writing defines déjà vu as a French phrase for “already seen.”  It means “a feeling of having been in a place or experienced something before.” 

It’s a feeling I have had before on many occasions and felt once more about a month ago as I read a headline in the Review-Journal that read “Jail caught in space crunch” (March 14, 2005).  The same feeling emerged almost a year ago and I wrote about it in this same paper (“The ‘edifice complex’,” June 6, 2004).  Almost ten years earlier I felt the same thing as I commented about the passage of a bond issue that began the building process of the new jail (“The bond passed – so what now?” September 29, 1996).  I had felt it then, as I do now, because I was hired by the County Commissioners to conduct a study of jail overcrowding in the late 1980s, where the findings of that research project led me to conclude that we did not need a new jail and if we built a new one it would become overcrowded in a short time.  Déjà vu.

            When I read about the most recent news of overcrowding, I told myself not to say anything, since I would just be repeating what I had said before.  Well, unfortunately I, like most of my fellow humans, am prone to break promises.  I told myself that writing about this again would not change anything, for the past would be repeated regardless of what I said.  But then again, there is a part of me that feels compelled to express my feelings publicly.

            We must keep up with growth, Sheriff Bill Young said. There’s an implication of a cause and effect: population goes up and so does crime. This is not true. Hundreds of studies have shown that there is no direct correlation between rising populations and crime. In the 1990s Clark County experienced a population boom far in excess of anywhere else, while the crime rate went down. 

The Sheriff also said that the growth has far surpassed all of our expectations, having grown by around 6 percent during the past year.  This is nothing new to me – and to most knowledgeable city planners and demographers.  It’s been doing that for many years.  The jail population, meanwhile, grew by 11 percent.  I don’t know exactly why, but I do know one thing: the only reason a jail is filled (or overfilled as the case might be) is that either too many people are coming in the front end (too many are being arrested and booked) or they are not being released soon enough.  Why would there be too many people being arrested?  Either there is more crime than in earlier years or there is a policy of making more arrests to deal with crime.  Well, we know that the overall rate of crime has not increased in Las Vegas in recent years. That leaves us with a look at the local policies toward responding to crime.

            At least these are the usual kinds of questions people ask.  I have asked them myself over the years. However, I have also asked another question: who is being arrested and booked into the jail and for what?  The answer to this question is perhaps the most enlightening.

            What researchers have found when examining local jails is that they are filled with mostly those charged with petty crimes.  Contrary to popular belief, on any given day you will find very few really serious criminals in local jails.  Not many murderers, rapists, and robbers are locked up.  I have seen the data and talked with people I know who work at either the downtown jail, or in Henderson or in North Las Vegas (and people I know from other parts of the country) and I keep hearing the same stories. 

            Here are some examples.  Traffic violations are common, especially driving with a suspended license, driving without insurance, and other traffic violations (“open container” is a popular one, as so many consume alcohol while in their car or many start celebrating the end of a work day on the site of a construction job or outside a 7-11).  Then there are probation and parole violators, both of whom are a growing number around the country, charged mostly with “technical violations” like failing to report and “dirty urine” (drugs).  There are all sorts of what we call “public order” violations, like disturbing the peace, being drunk in public and prostitution.  Together these kinds of offenses constitute about 80-90 percent of all the crimes charged to those who get “booked” into jail on any given night.

            I have lived here since 1977 and have been affiliated with UNLV during all these years.  I have had perhaps 3,000 or more students in my classes, many of whom are employed somewhere within the legal system, including Sheriff Bill Young. They are mostly kind hearted, decent human beings trying to do an almost impossible job.  But they are caught up in a system that I believe is out of control, dominated by delusions and the same old prescriptions – do more of the same, but do it better. 

We are no safer from crime than before – and don’t get me wrong about this, for we do have some serious crimes being committed and the people responsible should be kept off the streets (I don’t say this enough it seems, as I am always being accused of being a “soft-headed liberal”).  However, we need to do something different with the hoards of petty offenders that get booked into local jails.  There is a lot of discretion in who gets arrested and who gets booked.  As I have said before, it is time to “get smart instead of getting tough.”