Article: Prisons expert says Nevada among lowest in recidivism

Oct. 21, 2009
Link: Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

Prisons expert says Nevada among lowest in recidivism –
One reason is inmates from California who return home, he says

CARSON CITY — A nationally recognized prisons expert said Tuesday that Nevada has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the county, but that may be due to released inmates who end up in California prisons.

James Austin estimated that about 20 percent of Nevada inmates are California residents who “had fun in Las Vegas or Reno for a couple of years,” ended up in prison and will return home when they are released.

Austin said about 28 percent of prisoners released in Nevada commit new crimes and are returned to prison within three years. That compares with a national rate of more than 40 percent.

But he added that the methodology the Nevada Parole Commission uses to determine whether to release an inmate is largely sound. He said he may only have to “tweak it a little.”

Austin was hired by the Parole Commission under a $20,000 contract to re-evaluate the risk assessment factors commissioners use in deciding whether to release prisoners. He helped develop the current system three years ago. His report is due before the end of the year.

In Nevada, inmates are assessed by the Parole Commission on 12 factors, such as whether they have a history of drug use or gang involvement.

During the public meeting Tuesday — attended almost entirely by relatives of inmates — Austin said he is carrying out similar reevaluations for officials in other states, including California.

When he visits California corrections officials, he said, he will ask for data to find out how many of their inmates formerly were imprisoned in Nevada.

Though Nevada crime may be lower because of this phenomenon, there also have been accusations that California dumps inmates in Nevada.

A 7,000-inmate prison in Susanville, 85 miles up the road from Reno, according to testimony at legislative hearings, often gives inmates a bus ticket to Reno when they are released.

In an interview, Austin said crime has been dropping during the current recession.

During recessions, people generally “are inactive and stay home a lot more than normal,” leading to less crime, he said.

But two years after the onset of a recession, crime begins to increase.

In response to reporters’ questions, Austin acknowledged that risk assessment factors used by parole boards can be adjusted to fit the “economics” of a state.

He said factors could be modified so more releases would occur in a state with financial problems that wants a lower prison population.

Conversely, factors could be tightened up in a state that is not as concerned about a high prison population.

But Austin said the Nevada Parole Commission wants risk assessment factors to be a reliable guide as to whether inmates would re-offend.

During the hearing, Carson City resident Tonja Brown cried as she read from a book she wrote about her brother, Nolan Klein.

Klein was convicted of raping a woman in 1988. He died in prison last month.

Brown maintained the Parole Commission would not release her brother because he maintained his innocence, and the commission releases only prisoners who show remorse for their crimes.

“A truly innocent man died because of their actions,” she said.