Nevada ACLU says too many bills create new crimes

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada civil rights activists say they're concerned about dozens of proposals before the state Legislature that would create or extend criminal penalties on everything from spraying graffiti to flying a drone while drunk.

An American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada report scheduled for release Monday says 44 pending measures would stiffen crime laws and could significantly increase prison and jail populations.

ACLU lobbyist Vanessa Spinazola said it could have a huge impact on society and the state budget. "Every attempt to try to deter something is being solved by making it a crime," she said. "If all of these bills pass, we might be going backward."

The measures come at a time of heightened national awareness of mass incarceration and its disproportionate effect on minorities. Nevada lawmakers and presidential candidates from opposite ends of the political spectrum have turned away from the "tough on crime" rhetoric of decades past and are taking a softer tone — especially on drug-related offenses.

Supporters argue the bills should be considered individually, rather than as a group, and say many represent commonsense ways to tackle pressing issues.

The wide-ranging measures would create 20 felonies, 21 misdemeanors and extend criminal liability for a number of offenses.

By contrast, the ACLU report shows that 23 pending bills would reduce criminal penalties. Critics point out that many of these expand protections for gun owners and say they would do little to reduce prison populations.

Republican Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, who sponsored a bill that would make graffiti vandals into felons after three convictions, shrugged off financial concerns, saying property repairs cost more than incarceration. Tougher penalties are needed to deal with repeat offenders, he said. "If one or two of them goes to prison," he said, "maybe the rest will get the message."

Clark County Deputy Public Defender Steve Yeager worries about a boom in prison populations, saying it could lead to unintended welfare and rehabilitation costs — as well as the financial expense of housing offenders. He says the state should avoid over-criminalizing non-violent crimes. "Let's make sure we're getting the right people," he said, "and not a kid who's spraying graffiti a couple of times in the neighborhood."

Nevada's prison population has grown from around 2,000 in 1980 to about 12,700 today, though the increase largely mirrors the state's population growth.

Republican Assemblywoman Michele Fiore has bills that put her on both sides of the issue, seeking to both increase and ease criminal penalties.

She wants to make a law that would ban disrupting a business, primarily targeting union protests. And she voted for Stewart's graffiti bill, calling it imperfect but necessary.

But Fiore also has sponsored a measure calling for a study on the effects of changing criminal traffic violations into civil charges. "We should not be spending more money housing non-violent offenders," she said, "than we do on education, or our children."

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