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Nevada bill would allow judges to waive misdemeanor fines for unhoused people

Two white picket signs outdoors read, “Rest not arrests” and “People over Property, Stop the Sweeps,” in front of an orange tent on the grass. The tail of a glass whale statue is out of focus in the background behind the tent.
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
Demonstrators camped outside at Reno City Plaza for a week calling for an end to the clearing of homeless encampments on June 6, 2021.

Nevada lawmakers are considering a bill to potentially cancel fines for some misdemeanors committed by people experiencing homelessness. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck spoke with the ACLU of Nevada’s policy manager Lily Baran to learn more.

Lucia Starbuck: So why remove fines?

Lily Baran: Firstly, you can’t pay fines if you are severely below the poverty line, so it’s just kind of nonsensical. Secondly, if somebody’s in this situation, if you care so much to go approach them and disrupt them, then maybe you should help them solve the problem because you want to help them find resources and not because you just want them to move down the road. Hopefully, this will be one of the things that can kind of bring people back in and get folks into housing.

Starbuck: Instead of fines, people experiencing homelessness would be ordered to attend diversion court or a treatment program. What options are available for folks in Washoe County?

Baran: Right now, you can already attend Community Court on Wednesdays at the [Downtown Reno] Library, that has a bunch of resources. And assisted outpatient treatment has to do a little bit more with, if you have mental health, medications, or something like that, there is a housing component, but that does have to continue to be funded. Veterans Court, offering them more rapid assistance with housing, etc. All of those are already an option. It’s just not required for the judge to send someone to those options if they get a fine. They are still required to pay a fine and some judges will go with that, and some judges will send people to one of these other courts.

Starbuck: Some of the opposition says this bill would allow people experiencing homelessness to not have to pay the consequences for breaking the law, or it’ll enable individuals. How do you respond to that?

Baran: I think that people experiencing homelessness are a consequence for bad policy. You hear a lot of things about, you know, people choosing to be homeless. I think that it’s becoming much more clear now that we see when we didn’t put an investment in continuing rental assistance in some places, when we did not do a huge effort to try to restore some of these hotels and motels for low-income and permanent supportive housing, that it’s very easy to become homeless. We are going to need to make an investment in these people. Honestly, what I would say to someone who says it’s enabling people to break the law, is we have created this scenario, and these people don’t want to be breaking the law. They would like to be inside. These are people that we’ve left completely destitute, that relied on a community and the community’s not helping them.

Starbuck: What kind of crimes are exempt and why these offenses?

Baran: Most of these misdemeanors are non-violent. There’s not a victim. Most of them are things like open container. I mean, we do wine walks. Lying or sitting. Also, things like urinating in public, that was kind of a contentious discussion, but also that hopefully, people will get to the point of saying, ‘Oh, we should build a bathroom here. This keeps happening.’ Hopefully, we start looking at policies as they apply to the unhoused as: here’s the problem, what solution can we create? Because these people are just engaging in life-sustaining activities. They’re just doing everything that everyone else does, but they’re outside. People drink, people sometimes have a small amount of drugs or whatever, people take a nap. But none of this would be like domestic violence or anything like that.

Starbuck: The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office during the initial hearing testified in opposition saying that the range of crimes was too wide.

Baran: Washoe County Sheriff can still do everything they were doing before. If you are just hellbent on taking someone to jail because they were sleeping outside, go for it. If that’s what you think is going to end homelessness, be my guest. It’s not. I think the sheriffs are invested in this and that they want to solve this problem just as badly. And again, it’s up to the judges’ discretion. We have to trust our judges.

Starbuck: In 2021 [after the legislative session], you and other demonstrators camped outside Reno City Hall for a week. What did you learn from that?

Baran: Oh gosh, that was such a beautiful experience. I might just do it again, if this bill doesn’t pass, we might do it here. I learned that it’s cold, it’s loud, and it’s really hard to sleep. I could see how lack of sleep also contributes a lot to mental health. And I could see how one would resort to drinking in excess to fall asleep, doing a drug to stay awake or fall asleep. It would not be difficult to slip into that at all, and that’s after being there for a week. But the best thing that I learned was how these folks took care of each other.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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