Nevada’s Prison Woes: Same Story, Different Day

Randall G. Shelden

December 9, 2005

    I’m really tired of talking about this. It seems as if I’ve been talking only to myself in the past 20 years. Two Associated Press reports have brought up some old sores for me. They have to do with the ever-growing Nevada prison population.
    The first story appeared on January 25, where it was reported that Nevada’s prison population, which was expected to rise to about 11,800 by fiscal 2007, may “go through the roof” according to the State Budget Director Perry Comeaux. His comment came as state legislators began to review the governor’s proposed plan to spend $532.3 million on prisons within the next two years, representing a 20 percent increase over current spending on the prison system.
    What this does not take into account is the expected rise in the number of police officers state-wide – as many as 1,700 may be hired. As everyone knows – or should know – when you add more people at the front end of the criminal justice system there will be impacts at all later stages. More cops equals more arrests, which equals more court appearance, which means more prison sentences – unless the powers that be start figuring out alternatives and ways to prevent crime. This is highly unlikely, since the “criminal justice industrial complex” needs to keep growing, like any other “industry.” The AP story did allude to the plan to use house arrest more often, as an alternative to sending people to prison.
    All of this is a little ironic, since we are being told that serious crime has been dropping in recent years. True enough, but arrests keep climbing. Arrests for what? It should come as not surprise that the answer is mostly drugs. You see, when crime rates are reported every year by the FBI and other official agencies, they are referring to the “index crimes” – eight of them (murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson). Most of these crimes have taken a nosedive in recent years. Not so with drugs. The latest FBI Uniform Crime Reports shows that between 1994 and 2003 the number of arrests increased the most for one offense: drugs (up 22%). Ranked second was embezzlement (but the actual numbers are very small). However, and more crucially, ranked third was the all-inclusive category known as “all other offenses.” A big chunk of these are probation and parole violations.
    During the past couple of decades virtually every state has cracked down on probation and parole violators. In some states as many as 40 percent of prison admissions have been probation or parole violators. In Michigan, for instance, a recent study found that the growth in the prison admissions from 1990 to 1997 was 41% for parole violators and 33% for probation violators. In California, the proportion entering prison last year for parole violations was just under 70%. In Texas, of all the offenders who were sent to prison in fiscal 2004, 15% were parole violators and 32% were probation violators. In that state, one report noted that 40% percent of the parole revocations were for “technical violations” – that is, violation of one of several parole rules, rather than a new crime. In Nevada, a legislative report in 2002 noted that 26% of those sent to prison are parole violators. Much of this stems from – you guessed it – failing a urine test for drugs.
    A Department of Justice study revealed that from 1990 to 1998, there was a 54% increase in the number of parole violators returning to prison. Not surprisingly, the more individual attention is paid to a parolee, the more likely he is to be caught violating his terms of parole. In 1996 the RAND Corporation completed a study of 14 jurisdictions that had implemented “Intensive Supervision Programs” (ISP). The study found that 65% of ISP parolees were charged with violating some parole condition during the previous 5 years, as compared to only 38% of those on regular parole.
    It is easy to conclude that the system of probation and parole (especially parole it seems) is aimed at looking for violations – in other words, catch them doing something bad, rather than good. I was once told by a high official within the Nevada Department of Probation and Parole something like “We train our agents to catch violators.” A researcher in California once saw a sign in the office of the head of a parole office which said: “Trail ‘em, surveil ‘em, nail ‘em, jail ‘em.” An exhaustive study of the prison and parole system arrived at the conclusion that the rise in parole violations resulting in a prison sentence “is attributable in large part to dramatic changes in the nature of parole supervision and the imposition of increasingly more severe conditions of supervision on parolees. Instead of a system designed to help prisoners re-adjust to a rapidly changing and more competitive economic system, the current parole system has been designed to catch and punish inmates for petty and nuisance-type behaviors that do not in themselves draw a prison term.”
    A partial answer to why Nevada prisons are so filled up comes from another AP report which noted that the prison population has doubled since 1990 and, more significantly, Nevada is 45th in the nation in its use of probation. The motto seems to be, “when in doubt lock ‘em up.”
    What do you think the governor wants to do to solve these problems? Build more prisons, of course. The governor’s proposed budget includes more than $58 million for three added housing units at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, plus several million more to re-open Southern Desert Correctional Center (Jean) and to open the Casa Grande transitional housing center in Las Vegas for 400 more inmates. And so it goes.

 © 2005, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.