by Colton Locchead and Nick Robertson, Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 12, 2022
Flanked by Clark County’s top cop Sheriff Joe Lombardo, former president Donald Trump called Nevada a “cesspool of crime” while in Las Vegas on Friday.
But the numbers don’t back up his statement.
Trump was on the Strip for a campaign event on behalf of Lombardo, who is running for governor, and U.S. Senate candidate and former Attorney General Adam Laxalt. The evening focused on law enforcement policy, and much of Trump’s speech centered on characterizing Nevada, and the nation, as in shambles.
“We are a nation in decline,” Trump said. “We are a failing nation. … All the while the streets are filled with the blood of innocent crime victims. … If we are going to make America great again, our first task is to make America safe again.”
Trump, speaking just feet away from the state’s former top prosecutor in Laxalt and current county law enforcement chief Lombardo, painted a picture of a crime-riddled Silver State for the conservative crowd.
The debate is often framed by politicians as a red-vs.-blue state issue, with Republicans trying to link rising crime to Democrat-led jurisdictions. But crime data show much broader trends across the nation.
Despite what the former president said, the rate of violent and property crime in Clark County has gone down almost every year since 2015. Crime bottomed out in 2020 due to the pandemic and increased in 2021, the first year overall crime numbers have increased since 2015 in Clark County, according to Metropolitan Police Department data.
Lombardo was quick to brag that crime rates have gone down overall since he became sheriff in 2015, but he blamed a recent uptick in crime on Democrats in the Legislature and nationally. The amount of violent and property crime in Clark County did increase between 2020 and 2021 — from about 47,700 instances to 50,800 — but the 2021 mark is still significantly lower than 2019’s crime total of about 55,000 events, according to the department’s data.
Lombardo is right about county crime trends — total crime has fallen by 16.9 percent between 2015 and 2021 — but only after a sharp increase in violent crime in 2017 and 2018. During those two years, violent crime rose to about 10,000 instances per year before falling to about 8,000 instances per year in 2021.
But where the sheriff is laying the blame is more questionable.
Blaming justice reforms
As he has throughout the campaign, Lombardo blamed the recent increase in crime on criminal justice reforms approved by the Democrat-controlled Legislature, especially Assembly Bill 236 of the 2019 session.
That bill came together as part of a lengthy examination of Nevada’s sentencing standards that started under former Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, and sought to reduce the rate at which people return to prison in order to lower spending on incarceration. Among other changes, the bill raised the trigger for a felony theft charge from $650 to $1,200 and increased the weight of drugs for a person to be charged with felony trafficking.
Felony theft thresholds vary heavily by state. In New Jersey, anything over $200 could land a person in prison for at least a year. In Texas, it’s $2,500.
The final version of the legislation received bipartisan support and passed in the state Senate on a 19-2 vote, with six of eight Republican senators voting in favor.
Lombardo’s department didn’t oppose the measure, instead testifying as neutral on the legislation in its final form before the bill was signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak. Lombardo told the Review-Journal in May that the department was neutral on the bill “in the spirit of compromise.”
Several conservative groups were publicly in favor of the legislation, including the American Conservative Union, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Right on Crime and others, according to a letter sent to Republican lawmakers in 2019 that was obtained by the Review-Journal.
“The bill was a recognition that indiscriminately locking people up does little to ensure public safety in our communities,” said Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, the bill’s main sponsor, in an interview with the Review-Journal.
During Friday’s panel, Lombardo claimed Democrats changed a law to make it so that officers aren’t able to arrest people for misdemeanor crimes. His campaign said in a follow-up email Tuesday that Lombardo was referring to changes made under Assembly Bill 440 of the 2021 Legislature. That bill specified that people accused of first-time, non-violent misdemeanors would be cited instead of arrested.
Despite Lombardo’s comments, however, overall arrests have still increased. The department’s statistics show crime increased by 6 percent from 2020 to 2021, and total arrests increased by 4.5 percent in the same time frame.
Lombardo also said people can get away with stealing a vehicle and they are not held accountable unless they steal a second vehicle.
State law says convictions for stealing a car, called grand larceny of a motor vehicle, are a category C felony for the first offense and carry a sentence of one to four years. Subsequent convictions are category B felonies and carry a sentence of one to six years. Prior to AB236, the value of the vehicle stolen determined whether it was a category B or C felony.
Lombardo’s campaign said that he was speaking about a “recurring scenario at (the police department), where it is difficult to charge and convict an individual with grand larceny of a motor vehicle.”
Lombardo’s complaints with the changes seem to center more on the trial process. His campaign said in an email that the changes to the motor vehicle theft law allow for first-time offenders to get credit for good behavior, which can reduce their sentence.
Following national trends
Crime data in Clark County closely mirrors the trends seen in other major metropolitan areas, according to Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Violent crime went up in 2020 and dipped in 2021, while property crime dipped in 2020 as businesses were shut down during the pandemic, and those crimes have started to trend upwards since 2021.
Rosenfeld said that the current national surge in crime is closely linked to rising inflation more than anything else.
“When you see inflation go up, you tend to see crime go up,” he said. “As prices rise, the lure of cheaper, stolen goods rise.”
Cities and jurisdictions that have embraced criminal justice reforms to reduce prison populations, such as those in AB236, have not seen crime rates go up at any faster rate as other jurisdictions, Rosenfeld added.
“The fact that Las Vegas’ patterns are following so closely to national patterns really suggest that the criminal justice reform argument is a weak one,” Rosenfeld said. “What you’ve been hearing is political rhetoric. And political rhetoric is often unhinged from any systematic evidence.”