Ask Nevada officials why prisoners who have been granted parole are still behind bars, and they’ll say prisoners are refusing to leave.
Ask to see the state’s statistics on the problem, and the numbers will contradict that claim.
Ask the prisoners why they’re still in prison, and they’ll say it’s a matter of being too poor to pay what’s required to get out.
Lawmakers and a top judge agree the state would benefit from digging into the issue. But how seriously the agencies involved take the matter remains to be seen.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada released a report on May 21 calling the state’s parole system — which last year averaged a backlog of 365 inmates — broken and in need of immediate action. The report followed a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation that found inmates are often granted parole but not released due to a process that keeps poor prisoners behind bars at a cost to taxpayers of some $4 million a year.
Nevada officials have rallied behind an explanation that’s contradicted by the state’s own numbers for why prisoners the state has paroled are still in prison: The criminals are refusing to leave.
But the Parole Board’s statistics for April show fewer than one in five inmates in the backlog refuse to leave Nevada’s prison system, which is the target of lawsuits alleging that an inmate had to rip out infected teeth in lieu of medical care and that guards put prisoners in a “gladiator-like scenario” and shot them.
Gov. Brian Sandoval, who signed a bill to study the system into law but hadn’t spoken publicly on the ACLU’s report, broke his silence Thursday — sort of. He reiterated state officials’ view that some parolees simply don’t want to get out of jail.
“There are folks who don’t want to be released,” Sandoval told the Review-Journal. “There are folks who can’t put together or don’t have the ability to put together an appropriate plan for their release. There are some who have committed offenses — sex offenders and such — where you have to be careful about their release plan.”
He didn’t elaborate on whether or how the state might plan to help those parolees who don’t have an ability to produce a state-mandated release plan.
In a statement issued late Friday, a Sandoval spokeswoman said the state assists parolees with their release plans in compliance with state law.
“The state has no interest in unnecessarily delaying any release,” spokeswoman Mari St. Martin wrote in an email to the Review-Journal. “Currently, the state does assist pending parolees on a case-by-case basis as determined by their individual needs with preparing an acceptable supervision plan in order to help them expedite their release.”
All the prisoners who told the ACLU they refused parole — 20 percent of the 43 surveyed — did so because of how challenging it was to create a plan to get out. The ACLU sent its survey to 75 parole-eligible inmates, some who had been granted parole but remained locked up and some who were waiting for parole to be granted.
Martin Horn, a criminal justice lecturer at City University of New York, said in an earlier Review-Journal article that hurdles and requirements to pay for a halfway house discriminated against the poorest and illiterate inmates.
“Prisoners don’t want to be in prison, and it’s a mistake to think they do,” said Horn, who has worked in Pennsylvania and New York corrections systems for more than 45 years. To fix the problem, he said the governor had to “knock heads.”
It doesn’t look like Sandoval has plans to knock heads any time soon. Before Thursday, he’d tried to dodge commenting on the issue, releasing a statement through a spokeswoman only after media pressure.
EXAMPLES TO FOLLOW
Nevada isn’t the only state that has battled parole problems.
But as Horn pointed out, there is little national data about the problem.
New Mexico is battling a backlog that it has reduced by changing rules. Now inmates are punished for not participating in the parole release plan process, spokeswoman Alex Tomlin said.
If inmates are just trying to serve their whole sentence in order to dodge supervision by not working on their plans, their credit for good time served will be taken away.
Other measures New Mexico has taken include starting on inmates’ plans from the day they get to prison and having a cut of the money inmates earn from a craft fair automatically funneled into a nest egg for their release.
The parole backlog there now hovers around 200. In December 2013, it was at 319.
ACLU of Nevada Director Tod Story said it sounded like New Mexico was managing its program in a way that inmates would be aware and held accountable for their plans rather than being left to figure it out on their own, which is what appears to be happening in Nevada.
Story took issue with the idea that inmates are choosing to stay in prison.
“It’s not that they are choosing to stay, it’s that they are giving up because the system has denied them over and over again,” Story said.
ACLU of Nevada Legal Director Amy Rose said she’s just trying to sort out why state officials seem to think prisoners don’t want to leave when evidence — including the organization’s own study — says otherwise.
“Even if we accept their premise as true, that’s a problem that people want to stay in prison,” Rose said. “What’s going on that that’s somehow acceptable? That shouldn’t be something that’s occurring, either.”
Steve Yeager, lobbyist for the Clark County Public Defender, said he felt the state needed to dig into how it categorizes refusals and look at why inmates were refusing. Yeager said he wanted to know how it was that inmates would be cooperating enough to be granted parole in the first place, but then refusing to leave somewhere down the line.
“I think people’s reaction kind of tells you how ridiculous the whole issue is. If you’re paroled you’re released.” Yeager said. “Why would you parole someone and then not release them?”
Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn has said his office regularly gets calls for inmates asking for help with this issue, but there isn’t much to be done because they are no longer clients.
“I just wish I had a better idea of how some of this stuff works because once they go to prison it’s kind of this black hole,” Yeager said.
He said clients ask him all the time about what their fate will be and that parole is a big part of a person’s decision to take a plea deal.
If word gets out that a person can do everything that’s expected of them and stay in prison because they can’t pay for a halfway house, he said, people will be more hesitant to take a plea deal.
Parole and Probation Chief Natalie Wood said her staff works diligently to aid those who need help with a release plan, pointing to dozens of caseworkers and re-entry specialists the state employs to help aid parolees’ transition out of prison.
She couldn’t say why more than two-thirds of respondents to the ACLU’s survey reported they had received little or no help from those staffers in finding a way out of prison. Wood said she “disagreed” with that report’s methodology and offered no further comment on its findings.
Wood also declined comment on the governor’s assertion that some parolees didn’t have the ability to complete a release plan.
Many of those releases are contingent upon a parolee’s access to housing, which Wood said is often not available by the time her division approves a submitted release plan.
She conceded it was “a good question” as to whether state legislators ought to remove residency requirements from the checklist of items division officials are required to approve ahead of a parolee’s release.
State parole board chair Connie Bisbee has also expressed doubts over the ACLU report’s methodology, without specifically challenging the organization’s conclusions.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Bisbee said she “may have misspoke” last week when she indicated that only about 6 percent of Nevada parolees refuse parole.
She said a count of April’s backlog indicates about 16 percent of parolees stuck behind bars are there by choice, a little under one-half the total held up while reworking a plan deemed unsuitable by parole officials.
Bisbee estimated nearly 100 percent of the total who chose to stay locked up did so because they didn’t want to leave prison under parole division supervision.
Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice James Hardesty agreed such cases are in the mix of parolees still behind bars, but declined to speculate on how many might fall into that category.
He described the backlog as if it were a hydra — the type of problem that doesn’t die if you merely lop off one of its heads.
“Some of it is housing, some of it is programming, some of it is having sufficient resources and some of it is access to employment,” Hardesty said.
“I think it would be helpful for the Legislature and the executive branch to look at that.”
State Sen. Tick Segerblom, a longtime appointee to the state’s Advisory Committee on the Administration of Justice, expects the upcoming legislative committee study will take dead aim at each of those parole system shortcomings. That study was passed into law early this month under Senate Bill 449.
Segerblom, Hardesty and 15 other committee members are set to wrap up the parole system inquiry by Sept. 1 2016.
“It’s tough to see why an inmate wouldn’t cooperate (with parole officials) if they want to get out early,” said Segerblom, D-Las Vegas. “You don’t want to point fingers at yourself or your people, but we have to realize we have a dysfunctional system.”
Reporter Neal Morton contributed to this story. Contact Bethany Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861. Find her on Twitter: @betsbarnes. Contact James DeHaven at email@example.com or 702-477-3839. Find him on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven.