Breaking Down Barriers


Show Notes

Join hosts Walt and Earl as they engage in a thought-provoking conversation with Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson. Explore the innovative approaches taken by the DA's office to address public safety, including smart reform initiatives like conviction review units and pre-charge diversion programs. Discover how the Hope for Prisoners program and insights on handling challenges in the justice system are shaping the path towards a more compassionate and effective criminal justice system.

What is Breaking Down Barriers?

Every 2nd Sunday of the Month, Walt Walters and Earl White from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department discuss local Las Vegas community issues and outreach programs.

Kevin Krall 0:00
You're listening to special programming brought to you by Glow fitness. The content of this program does not reflect the views or opinions of 91.5 Jazz and more. The University of Nevada Las Vegas or the Board of Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education. breaking down barriers is brought to you by Glo fitness a fitness studio offering a variety of classes and sessions like Mommy and Me for mothers wanting to connect with their children through fitness, offering strength training boot camps and more. Glo fitness is located at 4250 East Bonanza Road Suite 19 specials and class schedules available at glow fitness dot Vegas or glow fitness dot Vegas on Instagram, more information by phone at 702-612-6414. was born in God's way.

Earl White 1:11
Welcome to another edition of breaking down barriers with Walden, Errol. Well, who do we have as our as our guests? Listen,

Walt Walters 1:23
I, Earl. Thank you for that. I'm excited. We have the current district attorney with Clark County here. His name is Steve Wilson. We've known him for years and we're excited to have you on our show.

Unknown Speaker 1:38
Well, thanks, Walton. Earl. It's a pleasure to be here.

Walt Walters 1:41
Thank you, Steve. I'm gonna start with our first question. Share with us some of your background, where you're from how you did it, where you went to school and some of the exciting highlights in it.

Unknown Speaker 1:55
Sure. Well, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, did the beginning of my schooling there but then went away to college and law school in San Diego. And then when I graduated law school 42 years ago, yeah, I know. We're all it's hard to believe. You know, I'm that old. I took a job here in Las Vegas. First job at a law school as a law clerk in the Clark County District Attorney's office. Oh my gosh, that was 42 years ago last week. Wow. And I served as a law clerk in the DHS office for one year then went on to be a deputy district attorney, which I did for close to six years. And what's really kind of cool, at least in my own mind, gentleman is the same office I now manage and run the Clark County D. A. 's office. I started my legal career in 42 years ago.

Walt Walters 2:54
Wonderful. That's wonderful.

Earl White 2:57
Wow, what a way to come back to where you kinda Yeah. Oh, my question is, Steve, what would you say are your top three priorities for your office?

Unknown Speaker 3:10
Well, the first one is easy. And that's public safety. Public Safety has always been and will always be my number one priority, because that's what our citizens want and care most about. Obviously, people care about feeding their families and having a good job and making sure that they can provide for their families. But being safe in this community is number one. So public safety is my number one priority. I can go on from there, because that has certain tentacles are all you know, I work with the law enforcement agencies on a daily basis in a variety of programs, but most of our citizens want to be safe in their community. So that's my number one priority.

Earl White 4:02
All right. All right.

Walt Walters 4:05
Steve, can you share with us the smart Reform Initiative?

Unknown Speaker 4:11
Sure, you know, it's not really Walt a part of my reelection platform because I started smart. And I started what I call smart reforms a number of years ago, because this country of ours is changing a criminal justice and the criminal justice movement, if I can call it that started many, many years ago, where we realized we couldn't arrest our way out of problems. We've lost the war on drugs by incarcerating a lot of people and to many people, so we needed to make some changes. So I started doing some reforms a number of years ago, but I do we We refer to them as smart reforms. Because there are a lot of very liberal prosecutors at various places in this country that in my opinion went too far. You know, we want to do smart reforms, not just reform for the sake of reforming. So one of the first things I did, which I'm very proud of, was about six or seven years ago, I established the first conviction review unit in the state of Nevada. And what this unit does, is reviews claims of innocence. Because we all recognize that there are some innocent people in our prison system Sure. And whether it be a DNA, or whether it be new evidence that comes forth years later, we needed to recognize that there needed to be a vehicle to review convictions if new information came forward. So I can created the first conviction review unit, which does just that we review claims of innocence, if it meets a certain criteria, DNA is the most common, because 2030 years ago, when people were being convicted, we didn't have the scientific DNA sophistication that we do now. And now that we have such sophisticated labs and sophisticated ways to examine DNA evidence, we're finding that there are some people the good news is very few. But there are some that were wrongfully convicted. So I created this conviction review unit to review claims of innocence. And I will say that a few years ago, a case was submitted to our office, a young man, his name is de Marlowe, Barry, who was convicted of murder perhaps 20 plus years ago, and new information came forward. So my unit did a complete and a new investigation. And we determined that the right thing to do was to release Mr. Berry from prison. And there have been a couple of others since then. So that's a reform initiative, if you will, that was established a number of years ago. Another one I'd like to mention, which I'm very proud of is project redirect. What we are finding in the criminal justice system is too many cases take too long to get processed out. Many cases, a person will be arrested on day one, there'll be released from jail, they'll return 90 days later, they'll get a lawyer or they'll get a lawyer appointed to them, then the next court dates another 90 to 120 days. So six 810 12 Months pass, and they're not getting any of the services they need. Because so many of the people so many the offenders have alcohol or drug problems, or have mental health diagnosis. So in the typical case, they don't get any help or services for many, many, many months. So I created this program called Project redirect, which is a pre charge diversion program. Notice I said pre charge. So this is even before we charge people with the crime, if they meet a certain criteria, and we're talking about low level nonviolent offenders, no the murderers, the raper, rapists, the robbers, the sexual assault folks, gun violence, gang violence, those cases don't qualify. But the other 90% of cases that are in our system, do qualify. So we will quickly within just a couple of days, if not a week or so, evaluate a case and reach out to the offender and his or her lawyer and say do you want to be considered for a pre charge diversion program? If they do, they are given an assessment of what their needs are, and then by a professional person. And then we craft a program for three to six months to address their needs alcohol, drugs, mental health. And if they agree to this program, they start right away. They start within just a few weeks of their arrest, getting services. And if they participate in the program and stay out of trouble. They can't get in further trouble than at the end of a period of about six to nine months. Assuming they've completed the program and stayed out of trouble. We don't file charges against them. So what this does is it diverts cases of the low level nonviolent offenders out of our criminal justice system. So it saves money and helps people and helps people. Yeah, that's exactly right. So that's project redirect, which I'm very proud of

Walt Walters 10:14
that is outstanding. I never URL had you heard of that

Earl White 10:17
now, and I think is outstanding is, is this being done anywhere else across the

Unknown Speaker 10:23
country? Yeah, there are other Prosecutors Offices and other criminal justice communities that do pre charge diversion programs. But I came up with this a couple of years ago, I thought it was a great idea I explored it, we took some of the criteria from other programs and other parts of the country to incorporate that into our program. And you know, COVID, then hit. So everything kind of stood still during 2020. But we're back up and running and, and people are doing great in the program. And then the final thing, which I'd love to talk about, but this is your program, you tell me,

Earl White 11:02
you can talk about it, go ahead and share with our audience

Unknown Speaker 11:05
is the hope for prisoners program. I don't know if you gentlemen are familiar with John ponder. We are very, very good friend of mine. Okay. So I met John, though 678 years ago, went to one of the graduations. And I was convinced that this was a program I wanted to be part of. So in the last six or seven years, I've spoken at 15 to 20 of their graduations. I was on their board for a couple of years. And it's the best reentry program to my knowledge in the country. So I'm going to segue quickly into something. And I'm being a little braggadocious guys. proud of the work that my office does in a couple of areas. The hope for prisoners program is a reentry program, people that are re entering back into our community, from federal, state and local facilities, correct prisons, jails. Well, about three years ago, I said, Why are we waiting? Until people are getting out of jail and prison to give them essential services? Why don't we offer these kinds of services to certain people that are deserving and qualify at the pre entry stage makes a lot of sense. So I went to John ponder, I said, John, I got an idea. And he said, Great, let's go with it. So I created hope for second chances. Well, it's a derivative of hope for prisoners, where if certain people qualify, and there's the criteria for this program, then we will offer them the services of hope for prisoners, which is phenomenal. The case management, the mentors, job training, they teach you how to go on a job interview, and hope for prisoners is a 12 to 18 month program. So if people qualify, rather than send them to jail, we offer them hope for prisoners as a condition of probation. And if they successfully complete the program and stay out of trouble, a lot of times they're going to drop down in their case, but we're saving the community so much money, because what happens if we send somebody to prison for 234 years, they don't come out a better person know. And remember, there's probably a couple of 100 people a day, returning back to this community, from jails and prisons. So if we can keep a few of the people that are deserving from going to prison, and getting them the services they need, in lieu of going to prison. That's a good thing.

Earl White 13:53
Wow, that's great information.

Walt Walters 13:56
We, we knew about hope for prisoners, and zero said Johnson, good friend of ours, yes. But I didn't know about the hope for second chances that make so we in our business, run on to people that have been out of jail for a while and they're trying to get back on their feet, and they just can't, your program by them starting that earlier. makes all the sense in the world.

Unknown Speaker 14:22
Yeah. You know, I when I went to John and said, John, I'd like to use your reentry program. At the pre entry stage. He kind of gave me a look like, but John has told me because you know, he travels the country, right? Trying to spread the goodwill of hope for prisoners to other jurisdictions. And he told me a couple of years ago when this program got off its feet, that it's the first Reentry Program, used pre entry by any district attorney's office in the country. Wow. That's exciting. So I'm very proud of the work my office does.

Walt Walters 14:59
I bet that is, that's good news. That's good news for the community. It is, cuz some of these folks, they they get out of prison and, and you know, they don't know how to do anything else. So they might revert to

Unknown Speaker 15:14
those they don't have the skill sets. They don't have a mentoring program. You know, traditionally people that get out of prison, they're on parole, and they have a parole officers officer, but our parole officers are overburdened. They have, you know, 300 person caseload, they can't give the attention that people need, because most people want to be law abiding citizens. You know, they're returning to their families, they have children, they have wives, husbands, a lot of women are in these programs. And I would encourage anybody that has not been to a hope for prisoners graduation there once a month, on a Friday afternoon, to go because it will inspire you to go to one of these graduation we've

Walt Walters 16:00
been to him, and they are inspiring. They're amazing, just amazing.

Earl White 16:05
Matter of fact, we had some referrals that we went to support the person every year referred to him that graduated. And we were we're really excited and glad to be a part of that. And we can gratulate John and doing such a good work and bringing a valuable service to our community. That's that that helps out a lot.

Walt Walters 16:27
Yes, Steve, I wanted to go into something here. What do you see because the world changes all the time. What do you see in some of the challenges in prosecute prosecuting cases, whether it be criminal cases, homeless, just simple trespass? All those types of things?

Unknown Speaker 16:47
Well, let me start with the effect that COVID had on the justice system. And notice I didn't say criminal justice system, because we have a justice system, which includes our civil cases. Sure, you know, personal injury lawsuits, contract disputes, all sorts of civil matters, in addition to my specialty, which is the criminal justice types of matters. So when COVID hit, the justice system pretty much shut down. Because people had to stay home. People had to quarantine, we basically, with a very few exception, shut down the courthouse. Now, the police officers didn't stop writing traffic tickets. And the criminals didn't stop committing crimes, and the police didn't stop arresting and taking people to jail. So what happened was a pretty significant backlog of cases, because we stopped doing jury trials for I believe, six to eight months. So when we start doing jury trials, those cases back up, they get backlogged, if you will, because most cases, plea bargain. You know, we have 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of felony cases that are in our system, but we only do about 120 to 150 jury trials a year, I'm talking about on the criminal side, which means that 99% of our cases are settled through a plea bargain. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. A plea bargain is where somebody agrees to plead guilty and is punished. But what happens most often is when they get close to a jury trial is when they say okay, I don't want to go to trial, I want to accept a settlement, right. But if we're not having trials, they don't have the incentive to settle their case, if that makes sense. It does. So there was a huge, huge backlog of many, many cases for many, many months. That's in 2020. Let's fast forward to 2021 when we came out of COVID, and the system got got back up and running. And I want to thank our judges or district court judges or justices of the peace or municipal court judges, because we worked with them to tackle these issues. And we created some different ways of doing things, more settlement conferences to try and resolve cases. And we have got basically we've got rid of the backlog of felony cases. We still have a lot of traffic tickets though. We've got 1000s and 1000s. Think of it for six months people were getting tickets. And I'm gonna say there were, you know, two to three to 400 tickets written a day. And as you know You don't know when you get it? Well, how many police officers out there riding traffic? Sure, right? Sure. And I'm not just talking Metro, you got Henderson and Northtown. And normally, when you get a traffic ticket, you sign and you have to appear right? 30 days or six days later, well, these people were coming to the courthouse, and we're being told to go away, because we're shut down because of COVID. So here we go. Fast forward into 2021. And now all these people are welcomed by. So we have 1000s and 1000s of traffic matters. But we created some pretrial ways of handling these matters. So we're getting through the backlog of traffic tickets as well. Okay, so that's one. Yes, me about challenges. Sure. Coming out in COVID. And dealing with a number of cases, was probably the biggest challenge, but we're doing great. Now.

Earl White 20:56
I didn't realize that the house was shut down.

Unknown Speaker 21:01
Well, there was open for the in custody cases. Remember, I said the police didn't stop arresting. And, you know, a number of the people that were either flight risks or danger to the community stayed in custody. So we had to continue to process the in custody cases, the best we could. But the vast majority of cases aren't those that are out of custody, those are the ones that got delayed. So the courthouse shut down as far as doing the normal stuff, the jury trials and things like that, but we still kept moving forward with the necessary cases, the income studies.

Walt Walters 21:42
Well, I know that some of the people that we deal with Steve Eve have evictions in during that COVID period slowed the process way? Yes, it was. It was something

Unknown Speaker 21:56
Yes. And while you know, you asked me about the homeless problem. I think I mentioned to you I was born and raised in Los Angeles. And I still have two sisters and a daughter that live in that area. You gentlemen are familiar with what I'm talking about. Las Vegas, thank goodness, at least today isn't as bad as some of these other major cities. Because when I go to LA, the tent cities they have in the LA area, Venice Beach,

Earl White 22:23
oh, one convenient beach and homeless have beachfront property because they were all on the beach. They

Unknown Speaker 22:30
do. They do. But even in other places in the Hollywood area, Los Angeles area, you will see tents, they call them tent cities, where they will go for blocks and blocks and blocks of communities of homelessness. Now, we do have a couple of areas like that four master lane, I believe still has that kind of environment. But it's a it's a pretty small area compared to the other big cities. But we have a number of homeless individuals in this community. A significant number of them have mental health diagnoses, drug problems, alcohol problems, a lot of those homeless folks would really rather not be homeless. They don't have a right to be productive citizens. I agree. But due to circumstances, it's a difficult program. We don't want to we don't want to put the homeless people in jail. No, you know, they shouldn't be in jail unless they're committing crimes and some do. So that's an issue that, that it's still something that all of the community stakeholders have to continue to deal with.

Walt Walters 23:41
That's right. Yeah, you made a comment. This is this is probably five or six years ago, Earl and I were talking to you about the homeless at a specific property. And I think it was during the winter, and it was cold, really cold. And some of these folks will go to break a window to get in or break a door down or whatever the case may be. And I think you and I and Earl all talked about, well, we probably would do that too. If we recall,

Unknown Speaker 24:09
they're desperate. They're desperate. And you know, and a lot of these folks really don't mean harm. But if it's 30 degrees outside and they don't have a choice, you know, and I say that phrase, tongue in cheek because a lot of these folks, there's a there's a bed available throughout the city every every day. Okay, so there are place right for the homeless piece where homeless people don't have to go hungry. There's food 24/7 available for the homeless, but a lot of the homeless people either can't because of mental health diagnosis or don't want to go to a public shelter. And if they're desperate, yeah, they're gonna break a window and seek shelter for the evening. Steve, I'm

Walt Walters 24:54
gonna tell you about an example that Earl and I saw a few years ago same kind of situation. There was a lady it late afternoon on for Master, getting her kind of place where she was going to stay that night. And it was cold outside. And we had gloves and jackets and all kinds of stuff. And I asked her, I said, Why don't you go over to Catholic charity? She was right across the street. She said, Well, we don't want to go over there. I said, Well, what are you going to do? She says, we're just going to take it. So it's sad. But she she mentally didn't want to go over to Catholic charity. She had a choice and didn't take it. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So gosh,

Earl White 25:36
well, Steve, is there anything as we getting close to the to the end here? Is there anything that you want to add that you want to tell our listening audience? And what you'd like to share with them?

Unknown Speaker 25:51
Well, I, I truly do have an open door policy. And I know that's a term that politicians use all the time. But I've been in politics 18 years, I was a city councilman in the city of Las Vegas for eight years, and now the DEA for about 10 and a half. And I'll sit down with anybody. And my staff knows that people and we know that. Yeah, you know, and sometimes to be perfectly candid, it's it's not the most pleasant situation, because people come in with complaints and gripes and you know, things they want to get off their chest. But what I've learned Earl, and Walt over the years, is if you sit down with people, most people just want information. Most people don't have a voice. They don't understand the system, or they haven't gotten the right questions answered. And I'll sit down with folks from my office, and I have victim advocates that will sometimes sit or the lawyers that are assigned to a particular case. And a lot of times people will just want answers to their questions. So what I'm saying to you, Earl, is that if there's people out there that want to sit down with me, I'll sit down. And I've got a couple of exceptions. If you're rude, and cantankerous, and you show up in my lobby, yelling and screaming, I'm gonna call the marshal. But most people, you know, even if they've got a gripe or a problem appear, and they're professional, I've got to pull the case. So I can educate myself before I sit down with them. But I do that on a regular basis, because I find that it's productive. A lot of times people just want information.

Earl White 27:37
They said, I thank you for that. And we have experienced interaction with your staff, professional, very passionate, are nice. And, you know, I think that the citizens of Las Vegas are lucky to have a district attorney says you.

Unknown Speaker 27:54
Well, you're you're certainly a smart man. No, I mean, I say that in jest, but you know, thank you for those kind words. I'm not perfect. And I make mistakes like everybody else. But I have a staff of 700 people 160 some odd lawyers. And that's what I do I manage people right now. I mean, I did practice law for 32 years. So I think I know what I'm doing. I did you know, 6070 jury trial. So I've got experience of doing what my lawyers do. But what I do right now is I manage people. And I also get involved in a lot of cases. The saying I have is that if you read about it in the newspaper, or see it on television, my fingerprints are on it because I make all of the major decisions on the major case and it's good to know. Some of them aren't easy. No, I can imagine you know, I get lobbied pretty good sometimes on both sides. You know, the victims want the death penalty and on probation and everything in the middle, but I'm always willing to listen, I think I'm a pretty good listener. Well,

Earl White 29:07
we want to thank you for being our guest today and into our listening audience until next month. This is rollin wall, breaking down barriers.

Kevin Krall 29:20
breaking down barriers is brought to you by Glo fitness a fitness studio offering a variety of classes and sessions like Mommy and Me for mothers wanting to connect with their children through fitness, offering strength training boot camps and more. Glo fitness is located at 40 to 50 East Bonanza Road Suite 19 specials in class schedules available at glow fitness dot Vegas or glow fitness dot Vegas on Instagram more information by phone at 702-612-6414

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