Monday, February 16, 2015

Nevada’s legal purgatory: Paroled prisoners stay behind bars

This is an article from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, published on Feb. 14th, 2015

By BETHANY BARNES and JAMES DEHAVEN
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL

The case of Russell Yeager isn’t a whodunit or a claim of wrongful conviction.

Yeager is, without a doubt, a murderer.

The mystery lies in what led to Yeager walking out of High Desert State Prison on Jan. 2, 2014 — more than 12 years after the Nevada Parole Board said he should no longer be behind bars.

Because in Nevada, being granted parole doesn’t mean you get out.

The parole board determined in 2001 that Yeager, 52, no longer posed the same risk to society he did as a rage-filled 15-year-old runaway who killed in cold blood.

For 13 years, Yeager asked the prison system, lawyers and the Nevada Supreme Court to give him what he had been granted. But nothing seemed to help.

Then suddenly, inexplicably, Yeager was out.

So why did the government decide Yeager was fit for release but not follow through for more than a decade? And more importantly, why are dozens more people — some convicted of nonviolent crimes — caught in the same legal purgatory?

It’s a conundrum that continually pops up in the Legislature. And it comes at a high cost to Nevada taxpayers: About $4 million a year to house and feed inmates the government determined should be let out.

Yeager — whose case is an extreme example of delays an inmate can face — is part of a parole backlog that is not only expensive but also puts the public at risk, according to criminal justice experts. Many of the inmates will serve their full sentence in prison, then be dropped back into society without supervision from a parole officer.

Through public records, interviews and correspondence the Review-Journal has found:

■ Some inmates are just too poor for parole. There is a limited amount of public funding available to help inmates pay rent at the state’s few halfway houses, leaving some stuck.

■ The parole backlog largely has been pushed aside by anyone with the power to do something about it.

■ The seemingly haphazard process could violate constitutional rights.

If Nevada leaders figured out how to get their backlog of paroled inmates out of prison, it could save millions and offer a fairer system on the surface. But one thing is clear in this mystery: With the legislative session underway, no one seems to have a plan to speed things up.

GRANTING PAROLE

Nevada’s 21 prisons, conservation camps and transitional facilities housed an average of 12,739 inmates a day last year. This year, the corrections department is authorized to spend $300 million on the system.

The Nevada Parole Board, in determining whether inmates are ready to rejoin society, takes the first step in cutting those numbers.

Prison sentences typically involve a range — say two years to five years, with the inmates eligible for release once they have served their minimum. The parole board then can deem prisoners eligible to serve the remainder of their sentence supervised by a parole officer.

The board considers the likelihood the prisoner will break the law again; the severity of the crime; the inmate’s criminal record; testimony from crime victims; the inmate’s history of violence, drug use or sexual deviance; and whether the prisoner has failed a previous probation or parole.

If the board grants parole — a privilege, not a right, according to Nevada law — the inmate must submit a plan for life on the outside to the Nevada Division of Parole and Probation.

And that’s where the system hits a snag. For one in three paroled inmates, something goes awry with the submitted plan and Parole and Probation officials won’t sign off. The inmates then wait, often for months or even years.

Those holdups result in Nevada taxpayers paying roughly $343,000 per month — or more than $4 million in an average year — to feed, house, guard and provide medical care for more than 300 people a year the state has decided don’t need to be in prison.

Read the rest here.

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