13 Investigates


Get out of jail free: public safety, jail overcrowding and rights of the accused

Investigating pre-trial justice in Clark County
Posted at 10:21 PM, Mar 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-13 00:35:18-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Accused criminals. Police arrest them, get them behind bars, and then the court turns them back out on the street, often within hours, even if they're charged with violent felony crimes.

This is today's criminal justice reform.

"It's public safety versus the use of public dollars," explains Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson. "We have cut back significantly on days in jail, which is phenomenal. That's saving the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions of dollars in a year."

Dollars spent every day a person spends in jail.

Clark County's jails have long been overcrowded.

"One could argue, well why don't you just build another jail?" Wolfson said. "And then you would house more people. I don't think that's the answer."

Some answers come from Judge Joe Bonaventure's Initial Appearance court which just started in 2019. It runs 7 days a week, every day of the year including weekends and holidays.

The court saw 22,000 defendants in 2019 and 71% of the cases were felonies.

The court is designed to quickly get defendants in front of a judge -- usually within 24 hours.

One major side effect: it also means they can be back on the street much sooner too.

Judge Bonaventure explains, "The idea with the Initial Appearance court is keeping the right people in custody -- those that are a flight risk or a danger to the community -- and making sure that the right people are being released."

But are they?

13 Investigates obtained a database compiled by bail agents who comb through court records every day. It shows, in a little more than a year, nearly 500 defendants were released on their own recognizance -- called OR -- a get-out-of-jail-free card that comes without posting bail... Just a promise that they'll come back to court.

"I think what it does -- it makes the crime like it was no big deal," said Bail Agent Marc Gabriel. "It kind of re-victimizes the victims."

Victims of crimes including sexual assault against a child, battery with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, date-rape drug trafficking, robbery, ex-felon with a gun, multiple DUIs, even murder.

"I think I've never worried more about any case but this one," Gabriel said of defendant Durwin Allen, charged in 2017 with two counts of capital murder.

Allen is not in jail. He's on house arrest awaiting trial.

"It presents a threat to us as law enforcement," said Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Asst. Sheriff Chris Jones. "We know the individuals involved in that case and their propensity for violence."

"This was a case involving gangs as I understand," said D.A. Wolfson. "This was a case where I believe the defense had requested continuances before. We had trouble getting a witness to court. We sought and obtained a material witness warrant. We asked for a short continuance. And the judge, rather than grant us that continuance and keep this person in custody, in this judge's wisdom, let this person out of custody. And I'm concerned. I'm concerned for the public's safety. I'm concerned for the safety of the defendant himself."

There are many other defendants getting the same treatment. Some have multiple prior arrests. Some have warrants and charges in other open cases.

Some committed new crimes while on release.

Chuck Muth of the nonprofit public policy group Citizen Outreach calls it, "Catch me if you can. I'm going to go ahead and keep doing this because they're going to keep letting me out."

Darcy Spears: "Is there a threshold? At some point do you say, 'You know what? You can't go back out anymore.'"

Judge Joe Bonaventure: "Absolutely. If somebody is a danger to the community, if they're continuing to re-offend, then that should affect their liberty."

It hasn't affected Leeland Rayburn, a career criminal who could be called the poster child for the revolving door of justice.

Police records show Rayburn has dozens of prior arrests and a number of convictions.

The charges include robbery, open and gross lewdness and battery with substantial bodily harm -- just to name a few.

He's been released on his own recognizance multiple times and failed to appear multiple times too.

Rayburn's latest arrest in February was for attempted kidnapping of a 10-year-old girl at Planet Hollywood.

He had an outstanding warrant out of state and another pending misdemeanor at the time.

But less than 24 hours after arrest, he was out. Released once again by Judge Bonaventure.

"Freedom before conviction is the norm in our society," Bonaventure said. "And pre-trial detention is the careful exception. And that's how it should be."

Two days after Rayburn's release in February, he was arrested for battery and property destruction, and let out again. In the next two weeks, he'd be cited and arrested yet again, this time for trespassing.

Every time, he's been released.

In Rayburn's kidnapping case, Judge Bonaventure says he had concerns but no choice other than to grant an O.R. release because prosecutors needed more time to file charges.

Darcy Spears: "People say that comes back to your office. What's going on there?"

Steve Wolfson: "What's going on there is ethically we can't file charges unless and until we have sufficient evidence to justify the filing of charges."

D.A. Wolfson says it doesn't mean the case goes away and they have to hope the people don't disappear.

"That's a chance we take. We didn't agree to their release. The judge released them."

As this investigation continues, we look at what frustrates and worries police most about a certain type of criminal getting pre-trial release.

Plus, could cash bail in Nevada become a thing of the past?

And is what some call "checklist justice" the right way for judges to decide who stays in jail and who gets out?

Our special report continues Friday.

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