Cover photo: Judicial candidate Dee Butler and host Jagada Chambers pose for the camera on the set of Power of Justice 2: Balancing the Bench which premiered on October 20, 2020.
by Carolina Chacon
Las Vegas, NV – As voters head to the polls throughout Nevada, the Mass Liberation Project, Black Lives Matter UNLV and the Forced Trajectory Project hosted last Tuesday the “Power of Justice 2: Balancing the Bench,” a forum on critical judicial topics that will affect Nevadans’ ongoing fight for a fair and equitable criminal justice system.
The forum highlighted a trend throughout this year’s judicial races: public defense attorneys seeking to reform the criminal justice system by running to fill judges’ seats. In Clark County, voters will be selecting 32 district court judges and 26 family court judges (who are elected to six-year terms), as well justices of the peace and candidates for municipal court.
“It’s really important to put people on the bench that listen to impacted people,” said Leslie Turner, leader of the Mass Liberation Project, a program of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). “[Criminal justice reform advocate] Glenn E. Martin said, ‘Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution but furthest from power.’ So I think this is a way that we exercise that power and take that power back to bring the change we want to see in our community.”
Jagada Chambers, a Mass Liberation Project fellow and the host of several judicial candidate panels, agreed. “This should light a fire in our community. I want our community to see this effort and be inspired to do the same.”
Through multiple interviews and panel discussions, “Balancing the Bench” featured nine judicial candidates who Chambers questioned about systemic racism, the school-to-prison pipeline, juveniles being tried as adults, plea deals, the overrepresentation of Black and brown communities in the legal system, recidivism, alternatives to mass incarceration, implicit bias, and the candidates’ own perception of public safety, justice and how their backgrounds affect their decision-making.
Bookending the hour-long candidate interviews were works of art that demonstrated the resilience and beauty of Black and Brown communities, even as they face a brutal justice system. Spoken word poet Jameelah Lewis delivered an emotional rendition of her poem “Battle ground,” crescendoing in a chant of “I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.” Nina Fechner, the aunt of Stephon Clark, a Black man killed by police in Sacramento two years ago, sang “Strange Fruit” (made famous by Billie Holiday) set to videos and photographs of dozens of victims of police violence in Southern Nevada. Tymika Truss performed an interpretive dance piece to “Blessed” by Buju Banton.
Gospel singer Nina Fechner, who lost her nephew Stephon Clark, to police violence, performs in this rendition of “Strange Fruit,” interpreted by Bananas vs. the People and produced by the Forced Trajectory Project.
Candidates interviewed include:
- Ozzie Fumo, candidate for Nevada Supreme Court seat D. Fumo just served two terms in the Nevada State Assembly, where he attempted unsuccessfully to end cash bail, and has practiced law for 24 years. Fumo’s opponent, Judge Douglas Herndon, has been accused of intentionally suppressing or withholding evidence that would have exonerated Fred Steese, who was later found to be innocent of the murder he was charged after having served 20 years in prison. Herndon also kicked an attorney out of his courtroom for wearing a “Black Lives Matter” pin.
- Christy Craig, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 32. Craig has been a trial attorney for 24 years and successfully argued a case before the Nevada Supreme Court that resulted in the Supreme Court implementing new restrictions for how judges can use cash bail for pretrial release.
- Jasmin Lilly-Spells, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 23. Spells has served as a court-appointed special advocate for juvenile defendants.
- Belinda T. Harris, candidate for North Las Vegas Justice of the Peace, Dept. 3. Harris is a native of North Las Vegas and currently serves as its Chief Deputy Public Defender.
- Anna Albertson, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 17. Albertson runs a small business called Legal Angel.
- Bita Yeager, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 1. Yeager served as a public defender for nearly 20 years before becoming a Justice Court judge in 2016.
- Dedree “Dee” Butler, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court Family Division, Dept. J. Butler is currently in charge of domestic violence cases for the Clark County public defender’s office. If elected, Butler would be the first Black woman elected to district court and the first Black judge in family court.
- Carli Lynn Kierny, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 2. Kierny is currently Chief Deputy Public Defender and has litigated 41 bench and jury trials. She is a volunteer victim advocate for Safe Nest.
- Jessica K. Peterson, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 8. Peterson practices misdemeanor criminal law, volunteers with the North Las Vegas Rotary Club and is a board member with the Rape Crisis Center.
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In Clark County, 99 percent of criminal cases end in plea deals, but many plea deals are reached through bad-faith negotiations that can lead defendants to accept guilt for crimes or violations they may not have committed.
Ozzie Fumo, candidate for Nevada Supreme Court seat D, blames pre-trial detention. He noted that a person who is in custody before their trial is two-and-a-half times more likely to get a prison sentence than a person who is not detained before their trial, even if both are charged with the same crime.
Christy Craig, candidate for Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 22, agreed. “There’s no way to deny that it’s coercive. When someone is sitting in jail, they will do almost anything to get out.”
“To the poor, bail means jail, but to the rich, clout means you’re out,” Fumo said.
Jasmine Lilly-Spells, candidate for Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 23, said judges must use their discretion carefully when approving plea deals or handing out sentences. “The people elect the judges, they don’t elect the attorneys… Ultimately, judges are accountable to our citizens.”
Fumo agreed, saying judges can dismiss a case, reduce the charges or intervene directly if they believe a plea deal is too harsh.
Systemic racism infects criminal justice in many different ways.
For one, algorithms set to determine whether someone should be detained or released on bail before trial often give Black defendants higher risk scores.
“Judges need to fix the pretrial risk assessment tool,” Craig said. She called for the tool to be reworked and based on scientific data.
Fumo, meanwhile, pointed out that while the algorithm attempts to measure a defendant’s flight risk or danger to the community, judges are not beholden to following its results. They can use their discretion when deciding how to rule on pre-trial detention.
“We definitely need more discretion,” Lilly-Spells said.
Another way the system targets Black and Brown communities is by requiring defendants pay bail to secure their freedom as they await trials or sentencing.
Earlier this year, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the cash bail system must be revamped. Craig, who argued the case before the court, called it “one of the things I’m most proud of.”
“But I cannot tell you how incredibly disappointed I am that it’s not being used in the courts on a daily basis,” she added.
Lilly-Spells attributed the delay in implementation to a shift in thinking that hasn’t yet taken hold among attorneys: The burden is now on the state to show why someone should be detained, as opposed to on the defense to prove why someone deserves to be released. People are still looking at defense attorneys, instead of the state, to justify a person’s release.
Artist Jameelah Lewis performs, “Battle ground,” a spoken word poem recalling her experience being arrested during the George Floyd uprisings in Las Vegas. Video produced by WangDawg, Jonathan Johnson, Oja Vincent and Nissa Tzun.
JUSTICE FOR JUVENILES
Over 70 percent of adults who enter the criminal justice system were also juvenile defendants earlier in their lives. Jagada asked judges whether they agree with juveniles — children — being tried as adults, and how to improve recidivism, or someone’s likelihood to continue committing crime after being convicted.
Lilly-Spells called for education in schools, especially of at-risk children like those in the foster care system, to explain sentencing, and how harsher penalties can be applied after a defendant has been convicted multiple times.
Craig said the Legislature needed to take action to address the school-to-prison pipeline, but also called for attorneys who defend children in court to testify at the Legislature about potential solutions. Fumo prefers restorative justice and pouring more funding into early childhood education. Children with more education are less likely to commit crimes, he said.
“We’re spending billions warehousing non-violent offenders and that needs to stop,” he declared.
Chambers also noted that of the youth sent to adult courts, 96 percent are Black and brown, and 65% of those are Black boys.
Belinda T. Harris, candidate for North Las Vegas Justice Court, Dept. 3, said she finds it shocking and inappropriate. “What as a society are we doing? Children shouldn’t be classified as adults because we know statistically, their brain is not developed. If their brain is not developed, they cannot be fully understanding of the consequences of their actions.”
Carli Kierny, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 2, agreed. “Juveniles are different. Their frontal cortexes are not fully functional, they don’t have impulse control. We’re treating them as adults when nothing about them is adult. We really don’t want to be raising children in jails.”
Anna Albertson, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 17, called it a failure. “This goes back to community and how we’re treating each other, far before they get into a courtroom.”
“Going punitive hasn’t been working,” Bita Yeager, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 1, confirmed. “It hasn’t made us safer, it’s cost us a lot of money, and it’s cost a lot of people years, productive years.”
Dee Butler, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Family Court, shared her experience serving in the juvenile justice division. She recalled seeing that judges consider juvenile records in sentencing and are more likely to give adults who’ve gone through the juvenile justice system prison rather than an opportunity for probation.
All candidates agreed diversion programs are better both for children and for the community. Harris, Albertson and Yeager also endorsed having judges conduct community service in historically impacted neighborhoods so that they can understand the lives of the children and adults that they are sentencing.
“Perception is reality,” Harris said. “You really learn something [by doing that].”
“It’s important for people in leadership roles to listen and learn,” Albertson added.
Across the board, candidates interviewed for the judicial forum agreed that Black and brown people are overrepresented in the legal system and that the system itself must be reformed.
Bita Yeager, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 1, stressed the need to prioritize mental health, starting in K-12 schools. She also recommended implicit bias training not just for the court system, but the medical system and school system as well. Belinda T. Harris, candidate for North Las Vegas Justice Court, Dept. 3, agreed that anti-racism trainings need to start with children.
Anna Albertson, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 17, said it comes down to people who don’t have the same opportunities as others.
Rickey Cooper, a Black man serving the 39th year of his sentence at the Indian Springs Correctional Center, asked the candidates a question via an audio recording. What would you do to end systemic racism and ensure all communities see equal justice before the law?
Harris cited her filing to run for elected office of an example of how the system could be changed. “I am a Black woman who grew up in North Las Vegas and I am a chief deputy public defender. “I see when I go into court that most of the people don’t look like me. I see how the system is needing some work. That perspective of a person who has stood next to a person and argued for their liberty, that’s a broader, different perspective I bring than a prosecutor and a civil attorney.”
Albertson emphasized that cutting off a defendant’s access to opportunities can have ripple effects not only on their lives but their family’s lives. She said judges must relearn how to be kind and empathetic.
Yeager, however, blamed systematic bias, in regards to race, economic status, religion and disability, in the criminal justice system that must be uprooted. “ I believe that I’m fair but I want to know that my numbers prove it,” she said. “Implicit bias is not the bias that you know that you have, but the things you may not know that you’re doing.”
RE-ENTRY TO THE COMMUNITY
For Nevadans struggling to re-enter society after going through the criminal justice system, Harris recommends that judges should directly get involved in recommending resources and programs that could help people after they’re released.
Albertson concurred. “What judges need to do is to step in and make a plan. Where is somebody going to live? How are they going to get their medication? What kind of job are they going to have? All this judges can do by knowing what resources are available and talking to each person.”
Helping people resettle into society after prison can also reduce their likelihood of committing another crime. Yeager called for three specific things former prisoners need to succeed: health care, housing, and employment.
ALTERNATIVES TO INCARCERATION
Yeager, who currently serves in treatment court, hailed the successes of addressing mental health problems through treatment courts rather than incarceration. “It’s much more effective at reducing recidivism rates and it’s cheaper,” she said. “Not only are we setting them up for success, but it’s for long-term success.”
Albertson recommended treatment courts and also praised deferred sentencing. Harris suggested that judges consider potential apprenticeships or vocation programs that can provide skills that people need.
“Assessing the underlying problem — that’s what we need,” Albertson said. “If you can fix that, sometimes that fixes a lot of other things.”
Carli Kierny, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 2, supports education and empathy in sentencing. “Many clients have mental health issues, substance abuse addiction, or are functionally illiterate. The system has failed them in every way. As a judge, I want to take that experience and use that in my sentencing decisions. I want to make sure that I’m sentencing the entire individual not just what they did, and help fix what brought them into my courtroom.”
Jessica Peterson, candidate for the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court, Dept. 8., stressed the importance of second chances. “Everybody makes a mistake in their life. We need to create a system that gives actual justice, that doesn’t necessarily just throw somebody in jail, that gets them the help that they need so that they can become productive members of society.”
All candidates supported alternatives to prison and recommended rehabilitation and addressing root problems.
THE VICTIMS OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
The forum also shared the stories of Nevadans who have suffered at the hands of our racist and biased criminal justice system.
Theresa Yancy presented the story of her fiance, Rickey Cooper, who was convicted of murder as a 20-yeard-old. He is now 59 years old.
Yancy is currently petitioning for Cooper’s sentence to be reconsidered. Though she communicates with him almost daily, via letters, cards, phone calls and visits, Yancy said it’s obvious Cooper’s nearly three decades in prison have changed him. He is no longer the young man coming from an impoverished, gang-ridden neighborhood. He is now a father, a husband, and simply a man looking to give back to the community.
“In the United States, we use the prison system to lock away people forever,’ Yancy said. “We don’t give them second chances. It’s time to end mass incarceration.”
Tiara Moore, a Black mother who was bailed out by the Mass Liberation Project’s Vegas Freedom Fund, also shared her brush with the criminal justice system. Moore was arrested after a verbal altercation and detained without charges for nine days. Surprised that she had been bailed out, prosecutors then placed Moore under house arrest for 30 days. As a result, Moore lost her job, nearly lost her apartment and couldn’t take her young children to school. That’s why Moore is looking to support judicial candidates who will treat mothers, especially those who are the primary caretakers of their household, with dignity and compassion. She made a direct plea to judges: “You need to have community with the people you’re seeing because you do hold the key to someone’s freedom.”
Moore’s experience echoed in the stories the forum shared of other Nevadans impacted by the racist, biased criminal justice system.
Vera Moore, who is Black, was nearly sentenced to life for causing $10 worth of damage, while a white defendant in the courtroom next door was given probation for inflicting $50,000 in property damage.
Michael Elliot called out judges for imposing harsher penalties for Black defendants than they do for white ones.
Kenneth Dorsey urged judges to consider alternatives to prison.
Zeru Berch, who was placed in juvenile detention as a teenager, shared how powerless he felt after being charged, and how little he thought his judge listened — or cared to listen — to his side of the story, despite Zeru having witnessed firsthand the fatal shooting of his best friend. His mother Nova said there’s not enough empathy in the juvenile court system. “Attorneys are just there to do what that means, to turn over the individual…that’s how they stay in business.”
Dee Butler, who if elected would be the first Black woman elected to District Court and the first Black woman in Family Court, noted how important representation is in the criminal justice system.
“Our judges should reflect our community, and our community is becoming more and more diverse,” she said. “There are so many Black and Brown families in family court, they should at least be able to see at least one judge that looks like them.”
DEFINING SAFETY & JUSTICE
Candidates were also asked to share how they define “justice” and “public safety.”
Fumo: “When I look at public safety, what I think is we should punish the deserving. People who commit a crime need to be punished, not necessarily by prison.”
Craig: “ I will be pressuring for the judicial district court to define what bias is, to define what a good judge is, to define how a judge should be graded. Then evidence-based data collection and every six months, that data should be released to the public so that they can see standard measurements across the different courtrooms… The court needs to self-assess and be self-aware.”
Lilly-Spells: “Everyone should feel safe. We shouldn’t have people of color fearing interactions with law enforcement.”