Sentencing: Nevada Supreme Court Justices Ask Legislature for More Discretion, More Funding for Drug Courts

Two Nevada Supreme Court justices appeared before the state Senate Judiciary Committee Monday to argue for increased discretion in sentencing and increased funding for drug and mental health programs, including drug courts. Nevada enacted mandatory minimum drug laws in 1995 that have contributed to an ever-increasing prison population.

Justice Jim Hardesty asked lawmakers to consider amending the sentencing laws to allow judges to deviate from the mandatory minimums as long as they submit written explanations of why the downward deviation was appropriate. Hardesty cited the senselessness of some drug sentences.

"It makes absolutely no sense for us to sentence a young man to 10 to 25 years in the Nevada state prison who gets paid $150 to drive a car from Sacramento to Utah" containing narcotics, Hardesty told the committee. He added that current law does not allow judges to deviate from sentencing rules or allow prosecutors to makes deals in such cases.

Hardesty was joined by Chief Justice Bill Maupin in asking committees that control spending to allot more money for drug and mental health court programs that can divert offenders from prison. "When I first heard about this program, I was very skeptical," Maupin told the committee. "What I found out was that mental health courts around this country have become very well recognized as having permanent success."

Hardesty added that the Supreme Court had requested $5 million in state general funds to pay for drug courts and treatment programs, but a budget subcommittee had only voted to approve $1 million. "Compared to what we requested, and compared to frankly what the demand is -- which is $30 million -- it was disappointing," said Hardesty.

While the justices have so far been unable to win increased funding for diversion programs, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) is calling on the legislature to spend $300 million on new prison construction. Nevada currently has more than 13,000 prisoners and is admitting more than 600 new ones each month, nearly double the rate of admissions in 1990.

As for sentencing discretion, Judiciary Chairman Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) told the justices he is open to the idea, but judges would have to be very careful not to arouse the wrath of victims' rights groups, who successfully demanded the tougher sentencing law in 1995. "Those mandatory sentencings were the result of rooms like this being packed with people who said, 'Hey, so and so got a sweetheart of a deal,"' said Amodei.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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