Nevada has always been a tough place for felons, says Las Vegas City Life. The state has some of the stiffest sentences in the U.S., and one of the lowest rates of granting parole. The combination fueled explosive growth in the prison population during the late ’90s and early ’00s, a period when the violent crime rate dropped. Even when the state had money, it couldn’t keep up with the demand for prison beds. So legislators decided to do something about it. They created an expert panel on sentencing, and concocted a few solutions. One of them, in 2007, increased the amount of credit inmates received for completing education and other programs.
After its passage, the prison population leveled off, and even began to shrink. Members of the parole board said it hasn’t had any effect on recidivism. Most of the inmates paroled under the new guidelines fare as well as those released under the old, subjective system. Despite the reforms, board members continue to exercise a great deal of discretion. They calculate an inmate’s risk assessment score with a worksheet that factors in everything from the severity of the offense to education and age. But they can treat the numbers as they see fit. In the end, the decision belongs to the board. It can deny parole to a low risk prospect, or grant it to a high risk. That goes for mandatory parole release, too, when the board is supposed to restrict its judgment to whether the inmate poses a risk to public safety. Although the name suggests automatic parole, or at least something close, that’s not how it works in practice. The board often dumps inmates who are up for mandatory parole release. Parole Board Chairwoman Connie Bisbee said the board usually denies about 32 percent of mandatory parole cases.