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State suspends practice of taking money from inmates who owe restitution

Updated October 8, 2020 - 11:45 am

State officials on Thursday temporarily stopped the Department of Corrections from using a victims’ bill of rights law to take up to 80 percent of money sent by families to some prisoners.

During the Board of State Prison Commissioners meeting, Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske voted to suspend the policy put forth in September by Department of Corrections director Charles Daniels.

The director was able to create the policy before the board voted on it. The department used Marsy’s Law as an “excuse” to take the majority of money that prisoners’ families are sending them, Nicholas Shepack, a policy fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said in a phone interview Wednesday. The money is being taken from prisoners who owe restitution.

“Marsy’s Law doesn’t actually require what they’re doing,” Shepack said.

In November 2018, voters approved Marsy’s Law as an amendment to the Nevada Constitution. The law is meant to provide rights for crime victims, including the right to full and timely restitution.

About 18 percent of prisoners are required to pay restitution, which is meant to help crime victims who are injured, may be unable to work, or need to replace property damaged by a prisoner, Shepack said. Before the policy change, restitution was being taken out of money inmates earned during work-release programs.

Before September, the department took a small percentage from family deposits for court fees or extenuating medical costs, or to pay for property if the prisoner damaged it while incarcerated, he said.

But after Sept. 1, up to 80 percent of funds sent to prisoners were being seized by the state for restitution, Shepack said. So if families wanted to pay for basic hygiene products or supplemental food, they needed to send significantly more money to account for the funds that were taken.

“Every family we’ve talked to who is being hit with this 80 percent deduction has stopped sending money,” Shepack said.

Prisoner advocacy organizations, including the ACLU and the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, have joined prisoner families in speaking out about the policy change.

The Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.

During Thursday’s meeting, officials said they did not understand why the policy was put into effect or why so much money was being taken from prisoners.

“The question that we’re all having here is, why 80 percent?” Ford said.

A letter from a Nevada prisoner that was read during the meeting’s public comment section stated that the policy has created tension and altercations inside the prisons between people who have access to money and those whose money has been taken by the department.

“You have put all of us in a horrible position,” the prisoner said in the letter.

Before the board reconsiders the policy, Cegavske said her office would investigate how much money was taken from the prisoners and why the policy was implemented.

During an Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice meeting last week, Sarah Hawkins, the president of Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, spoke out about the policy change and the Marsy’s Law justification. She said withholding funds sent by families penalizes those depositing the money.

“Families and loved ones should not pay for the actions of those who committed a crime,” she told the commission.

Officials said during last week’s meeting that the commission received nearly 100 letters regarding the policy from prisoners and their families.

Marsy’s Law has been passed in 10 other states, according to the Marsy’s Law for All organization, which was founded by billionaire Henry Nicholas III. Shepack said Nevada has been the only state to interpret the restitution requirement to take away inmate funds at such a high rate, and the majority of other states don’t take money from family deposits.

Shepack also agreed that the interpretation of the law harmed “law-abiding Nevada community members.”

“The intent of Marsy’s Law is to protect victims, not create them,” he said.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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