By Jackie Valley
LAS VEGAS SUN
A Saturday court session debuting this month could help solve a dilemma facing the county jail: too many inmates and too few beds.
The added Las Vegas Justice Court session — at 1 p.m. on Saturdays beginning today — is also a way to measure the need and support for a long-discussed night court in Clark County, said Justice of the Peace William Kephart.
Justice Court judges voted unanimously two months ago to approve a 14-week trial of Saturday court, a move lauded by Metro Police, who say overcrowding at the Clark County Detention Center is costing the county more money.
“We want to make sure the people who are in jail are the ones who need to be there — the violent ones who have shown a propensity to break the law,” said Kephart, one of several judges working with police, prosecutors and defense attorneys to organize the pilot program.
Justice Court judges will rotate to preside over the Saturday session, where they will conduct 48-hour case reviews for people arrested on Thursday night, Friday and Saturday morning, Kephart said. Judges also will hear traffic warrant cases.
At 48-hour hearings, judges review cases to determine whether there is enough probable cause to hold an arrestee until the state files formal charges within three business days.
Conducting 48-hour hearings on Saturdays will allow judges to address bail or release inmates on their own recognizance, Kephart said. Inmates will appear via video from the detention center.
Without a Saturday court session, people arrested Thursday evening through Saturday often spend the weekend in jail until they can go before a judge Monday morning, Kephart said.
The lag time comes with a price tag: It costs $140 per day to house an inmate in the detention center, which can hold 2,982 people, said Todd Fasulo, a Metro Police deputy chief who is charge of the county jail.
But the number of inmates is often greater than the maximum capacity, in part because of renovations to the detention center’s north tower.
On a day in late June, 3,039 people were in custody at the detention center, creating a backup in the booking area as authorities waited for beds to become available, Fasulo said. To ease overcrowding, Metro rents beds for $110 per day at other facilities, such as the Henderson jail, he said. But Metro is reticent to resort to that.
“It’s much more efficient to have everyone under one roof,” Fasulo said.
Saturday court will cost $10,240 to pay clerks for the 14-week trial period, Justice Court officials said. An entire year of Saturday court would cost $37,763.
Kephart said he expected judges would hear 80 to 100 cases for 48-hour reviews, in addition to seeing upward of 60 people arrested on traffic warrants, on Saturdays.
Judges do not have a quota for how many inmates they would like to release each Saturday because public safety remains the top priority, he said.
Even so, authorities admit public perception of the concept — shuffling nonviolent inmates through jail quicker — remains a challenge.
“What effect are we going to have on the psyche of the public in terms of punishment in the jail?” Kephart said. “Are we telling them it doesn’t mean anything? I hope not.”
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said he supports the Saturday court concept, which has a rationale similar to a policy by his office pertaining to drug cases.Because lab work for drug cases can take months and precludes the district attorney’s office from filing formal charges within 72 hours, prosecutors screening new cases notify jail and court authorities when they come across ones involving controlled substances, Wolfson said. The notification allows the courts to set a return date for the alleged drug offenders and release them from custody while awaiting lab results.
If Saturday court runs smoothly, the county might consider forming a night or weekend court with a full-time staff — an idea that has been batted around for many years considering Las Vegas’ status as a 24-hour city, Kephart said.
The idea has the approval of Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn, who said he considered a night court long overdue, even if it would mean adding more district attorneys, public defenders and clerks to staff hearings.
Kohn said he believed the county would save money in the long run and reduce the amount of people in jail and the number of bench warrants issued.
“I can’t imagine many communities as large as Clark County that don’t have night court,” Kohn said. “This will help the system in so many ways.”One such example exists several hours south of Las Vegas in the metropolitan Phoenix area.
Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, has what it calls an Initial Appearance Court, where a court docket is conducted every three hours around the clock, seven days a week, according to the county’s website.
Kephart said Saturday court in Clark County is at least a start, which should help reduce jail overcrowding and make the court system more efficient.
Putting inmates in front of a judge sooner could turn out to be a benefit, as well, he said.“We may be able to get their attention a little quicker,” he said.