A bail bond business in Reno near the Washoe County Jail - image - Brian Bahouth

Reno – According to a recent study from the Prison Policy Initiative, some 23,000 people are in Nevada jails today, and if you include people on probation and parole, the number of Nevadans under correctional supervision rises to roughly 42,000.  

Since 1999 the number of people incarcerated in Nevada has continued a steep climb, but what’s most salient is that over the past two decades the percentage of people behind bars due to pretrial policies has risen sharply, and the legal destinies of a defendant who can afford bail and one who cannot are very different, but Leslie Turner, a community organizer for PLAN Action, the Mass Liberation Project, said she’s hopeful the bail system in Nevada will change this legislative session with both houses of the Nevada Legislature under Democratic control and Nevada Governor, Democrat Steve Sisolak on record in support of money bail system reform. 

For Turner, the incarceration that results from an inability to pay bail is a central part of the problem. Poor defendants are arrested for non-moving traffic infractions, for instance, and remain in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail or a bondsman. Turner said poor defendants will ultimately plead guilty to a lesser infraction whether they are guilty or not just to get out of jail.

“If you combine not being able to afford bail with the policies out of the district attorney’s office such as most people taking plea deals, those two things kind of work hand-in-hand, and that is why, particularly in Clark County, you have a 99 percent plea deal rate, which means the vast majority of people are not even considering or imagining going to trial and they are just taking plea deal because they want to get out.”

Turner and others have been court-watching and have documented how plea agreements undermine due process and perpetuate a cycle of incarceration.

“We’ve actually seen it numerous times where a person will declare their innocence on a charge, and when they go to court they’ve been sitting in jail for two weeks, sometimes 30 days, and the district attorney will say, ‘we’ll drop it down to a gross misdemeanor on a plea deal, and if you plead guilty you’ll get out today,’ so of course, people wanting to get out and get home to their kids, their lives, their apartment, their jobs, so they end up taking that plea deal when a lot of the time they’re actually innocent.

“Clark County is at 99 percent. That’s the percentage that are taking plea deals instead of going to trial. The national average is 90 percent, so basically plea deals and cash bail work hand-in-hand to basically keep people locked up in the criminal justice system.”

The Prison Policy Initiative report also found that the majority of people locked up in local jails have an annual income below the poverty line. Turner said that on any given day between 300 and 500 people are locked up in city and county jails in southern Nevada for unpaid traffic tickets.

“Someone gets a ticket. They have to pay $400. The average person doesn’t have $400 just sitting around, so a lot of times people get on payment plans, and if you miss a payment on that payment plan, then your tickets immediately go into warrant, so justice court gives you like a ten day grace period. Municipal court actually gives you no grace period, so if you are stopped for a broken tail light or any other thing on the road, you have that warrant will be taken in.”

Turner described what is tantamount to a debtors prison in North Las Vegas.

“Essentially, judges in North Las Vegas are actually giving sentences where you have to work off your charges at like a hundred dollars a day will come off your sentence, so if you owe like $1,700 you’re going to do, what is that, seventeen days, so it’s like $100 a day off your tickets, which is like, that is literally a debtors prison.”

Without the ability to post bail, people sit in jail, and Turner said that begins a cascade of associated problems.

“So a person might literally lose their apartment. They could lose their job. If they are a single parent, they could lose custody of their children because they are unable to pay traffic fines.”

Assemblyman Steve Yeager, a Democrat from Las Vegas and chair of the Assembly Committee on Judiciary is sponsor of AB110, a measure that would decriminalize traffic tickets by moving them from criminal court and making them a civil matter. Turner said the measure would also stop the suspension of peoples’ drivers licenses for failure to pay, and for Turner, a single mom, the cycle of money justice is not an abstract concept.

“My drivers license got suspended because I didn’t pay a ticket, so I could already afford that ticket,” Turner said. “I was still driving to do everything I needed to do. I’m a single parent and still have to make sure my son gets to school. I still had to try to work to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table and at the same time trying to figure out how I can catch up on this payment. So if I got pulled over again, I’ll get another ticket for driving on a suspended drivers license. So that’s how these people get caught up in these cycles of poverty and incarceration.

“It all stems from the fact that we don’t have money. We’re not criminals. We’re not dangerous to society. We’re not reckless drivers. I heard someone say that. None of my tickets were ever moving violations. They were all things I could not afford to pay for. Like it’s all linked to wealth. I just really want to end this notion that we can jail people because they’re poor, and decriminalizing poverty and ending wealth-based detention.”

Turner offered an example.

“If you have two defendants who do the exact same thing on the exact same day and time, their experiences will be completely different based on whether or not they have money,” Turner said. “So if they’re poor, they’re gonna sit behind bars in jail and fight their case from behind bars, but if they have money, they are going to be able to fully enjoy that presumption of innocence that we’re all supposed to have where they can pay and get out and return to their jobs, fight their case from the community and continue caring for their families, and they’re going to have much better outcomes in their cases as well.

“When you have poor people who are going to sit behind bars. They’re going to end up most of the time taking a plea deal and they’re also going to suffer more impact as far as the collateral costs of incarceration because they’re jailed longer. They’re also gonna lose their jobs. They might lose their children, especially if they are single parents like me. If I go to jail, my son doesn’t have anywhere to go, so he’s gonna go into county custody, so things like that are what we’re really trying to fight against.”

In addition to AB110, there are a couple of active bills that regard the money bail system in Nevada.  AB17 does not do away with the bail system and would enact a procedural change regarding the return of bail money more promptly should charges be dismissed. Turner is also watching AB203, a measure that would allow a defendant to “be admitted to bail without appearing before a magistrate on an unsecured bond if the defendant: (1) was arrested for any misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor which does not involve an act of violence; (2) was not arrested while on bail; and (3) does not have a record of failing to appear after release on bail or without bail,” the bill reads.

“On its face it’s a good bill,” Turner said. “The problem is it’s not comprehensive enough and it’s going to leave too many loopholes for the district attorney, the police department, or basically law enforcement in general could be able to overcharge people, so if it’s law that misdemeanors will be ORed (ordered released on their own recognizance), if they want the person to sit behind bars, they could easily up it to a felony, so we could see an increase in the number of felony charges. That is not a systemic change fixing a really small part of the problem when actually we need to change the way the bail system works for everyone and make it so it’s not wealth-based.”

Turner said the legislative soil is fertile for meaningful money bail reform in 2019.

“I think we have an open opportunity to do trans-formative change. We have a governor who has already said that he is onboard with ending money bail openly, and it’s something that we talked about prior to him being elected. Having a governor who understands the issue and wants to act on it, gives us leverage.”

Turner acknowledges that the bail industry lobby will be at work to prevent reform, but for her, whether an industry is able to make money off a system should have no bearing on its legality. For Turner, the impact of laws on people should be the primary consideration, not the profitability of the bail bond industry.

“It’s about a system of laws and how people on the ground are incurring those laws. Those should be the only factors that matter.”