June 14th, 2022 • Isabelle Geczy
The Pandemic Revealed the Failure of Geriatric Parole "Reform" in Nevada
This blog post was authored by Isabelle Geczy, a recent graduate of the UCLA School of Law. Geczy’s research into geriatric parole originated as part of a research effort by the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project and a group of UCLA students, who worked to systematically analyze each state’s use of emergency medical release mechanisms during the pandemic. This state-by-state research effort was carried out with the guidance and participation of Mary Price and FAMM.
Read Only Six, Geczy’s study of geriatric parole in Nevada, here.
Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 8,000 people have reportedly tested positive for COVID in Nevada state prisons, and at least 60 have died of the virus.
While shocking on their own, these numbers are especially notable because, in at least one critical way, Nevada could have been uniquely well-positioned to save an untold number of those lives.
In early summer 2019, the state legislature passed A.B. 236, a sweeping omnibus criminal justice bill that contained – among other provisions –reforms to the state’s geriatric parole system. Prior to 2019, the state had barely any functional geriatric parole system: incarcerated people were considered eligible for compassionate release only if they were “physically incapacitated or in ill health to such a degree that he or she [did] not pose a threat to the safety of the public” or if they were so sick that they are expected to die within one year.
A.B. 236 was drafted to considerably expand who would be eligible. As originally proposed, the bill would have granted parole eligibility to all incarcerated individuals not convicted of first degree murder, who were found not to pose a threat to public safety, and who met an age and time-served requirement.
That initial geriatric parole provision came from a package of policy recommendations from the state’s Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice. The report noted that the number of people aged 55 and older in Nevada state prisons rose 70 percent from 2009 to 2017, and that the number of hospital admissions and days that incarcerated people in Nevada spent in hospitals nearly doubled in recent years 2014 to 2018.
Together, all the proposed changes were projected to cut Nevada’s anticipated prison population growth by 89 percent and reduce the state’s prison population by over 1,000 people by 2028. It was also projected to save the state 640 million dollars.
Even the director of the state’s department of corrections was in favor of the package. “If we don’t change what we’re doing, we’re not going to do better,” he said, according to the Nevada Current. “It’s so important that we do something now. If you do (justice reinvestment) correctly, it will work and we will be safer.”
Yet, during the course of the legislative process, opposition groups, including prosecutors and law enforcement officials, argued that such broad eligibility for geriatric parole would threaten public safety in Nevada communities. As a result, many of those policy recommendations, including the geriatric parole reform provisions, were excluded or significantly watered down.
Legislators added caveat after caveat to the bill’s text: whereas the bill as initially proposed contained only minimal exclusions based on an individual’s crime of conviction (as originally drafted, only people convicted of first degree murder were ineligible), during the legislative process, the bill was watered down to exclude anyone convicted of any “crime of violence,” vehicular homicide, a DUI that results in death or substantial bodily injury, or a sexual offense. Furthermore, the legislature raised the minimum age requirement for eligibility from 60 to 65 years, and limited eligibility to individuals who had served a majority of their sentence. It also came to exclude anyone defined by statute as a “habitual criminal” – someone convicted of five or more felonies of any kind.
In short, what began as a sweeping policy reform hailed by advocates as a national model for decarceration was transformed through the legislative process into a narrow provision with extremely limited reach. It ultimately fell victim to the same “tough on crime” scare tactics that prosecutors and law enforcement have employed for generations to win over politicians – the same politics that have led us to the current incarceration crisis.
The new version of the parole bill, with its many exclusions, was signed into law by the state’s governor in June of 2020. The Nevada Sentencing Commission, recognizing the threat that COVID posed to incarcerated people, then voted unanimously to institute the bill’s geriatric parole provision months early.
As passed and implemented, however, the geriatric parole reform provisions were so weakened as to be almost meaningless. Of the state’s incarcerated population of 12,000, just six people were determined to be eligible for a hearing under the new provision. Furthermore, advocates in the state reported that during the first year of its implementation, not a single one of those six people even received a hearing.
The failure of geriatric parole statewide during the pandemic raises serious questions about its consequences: how many of the 60 people who died of COVID in state prisons could have been saved if A.B. 236’s geriatric parole provisions were not watered down during the legislative process? How many lives could have been saved if the bill was passed as originally proposed.
The issue that the statute was originally designed to address will not disappear with COVID. Older people in prison – the population for whom geriatric parole is specifically designed – have always faced serious health risks, including death, from incarceration, and this population is only growing. If during a deadly pandemic that ravaged the state prison system just six people were granted geriatric parole, who will receive parole if and when the COVID pandemic subsides?
The failure of geriatric parole in Nevada during the pandemic was not inevitable. Rather, it was the result of a targeted campaign by specific actors – prosecutors and law enforcement, in particular – to roll back meaningful reforms in the name of “public safety.” In doing so, however, it is now clear that those very rollbacks did exactly the opposite, endangering the health and safety of many of the state’s most vulnerable residents living behind bars.
Our research into the use of compassionate release during the pandemic has been made possible by the generous support of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
August 4th, 2022 • Sharon Dolovich
Many of the data sets we began crafting in pandemic early days continued to grow and have ultimately proved crucial to efforts by advocates, journalists, activists, academics and other stakeholders to make sense of the impact of COVID on people in custody and on the people who work in carceral settings. But not all our initial data-gathering efforts had staying power.