Nevada attorney general Aaron Ford says the state's rising retail theft rates must be curbed. He should know—in 2019, the Democrat testified in support of a law that made it harder for prosecutors to jail retail thieves.
Ford on March 2 presented a bill that would allow his office to "investigate and prosecute organized retail theft crimes." The measure, Ford said, is "necessary" given the rise in retail theft crimes seen in Nevada—last year, for example, the state saw a 15 percent increase in property crimes and a staggering 39 percent increase in drug-store thefts on the Las Vegas Strip. While Ford used the bill as proof he's mounting a proactive push to reverse that trend, critics say he's to blame for the problem in the first place.
That's because Ford in 2019 emerged as a vocal supporter of Assembly Bill 236, a Democrat-led measure that overhauled Nevada's criminal justice system. Included in the bill—which Ford said his office was "intimately involved in"—was a provision that raised the threshold for felony theft from $650 worth of stolen goods to $1,200. As a result, a criminal who steals $1,000 worth of goods, for example, can no longer be charged with a category D felony, which carries a standard sentence of at least a year in jail. Instead, that criminal is now charged with misdemeanor larceny, a charge prosecutors often agree to dismiss if the thief pays a fine and attends an online training program.
Better Nevada PAC, a political group associated with the state's Republican governor, Joe Lombardo, accused Ford of "desperately trying to cover up his pro-criminal agenda."
"He's spent his entire political career decriminalizing serious crimes and trying the hands of law enforcement," spokesman John Burke said. "He simply can't hide from the truth."
Ford, whose office did not return a request for comment, is no stranger to controversy when it comes to theft laws. During his time as a state senator, Ford said he "can't speak to what larceny even means, frankly." Ford was also arrested for theft in 1994, though the case was eventually dismissed after the Democrat paid restitution to a tire shop owner he stiffed. The Republican Attorneys General Association highlighted both those instances in a 2018 ad campaign.
Ford became Nevada's attorney general in 2019, a year that also saw Democrats take full control of the state legislature for the first time in decades. The party prioritized criminal justice reform, proposing sweeping changes through Assembly Bill 236, which passed the Nevada Assembly's judiciary committee via a party-line vote in May 2019. The bill's sponsor, liberal state legislator Steve Yeager (D.), defended the legislation's felony theft changes, calling the threshold at the time "very low."
"Your average iPhone is going to be $1,200. So if you take an iPhone, you are looking at having a felony," Yeager said at the time. "So we looked at adjusting those levels."
Days later, Ford appeared in front of the Nevada Senate's judiciary committee to testify in support of the bill. The attorney general's office, Ford said during his testimony, "has been intimately involved in the discussions related to the iterations of this bill," which the Democrat called "important."
"It reflects a lot of good work," Ford said before lamenting Nevada's "truly unsustainable prison population." "I commend you for the work you're doing on this and I stand here to say that I support AB 236," he said.
Yeager assured Nevadans that the bill would not lead to increased crime. But property crimes went on to soar in Nevada—the Las Vegas Strip, for example, saw a 45 percent increase in such crimes during the first eight months of 2022 when compared with the year prior.
Lombardo, who for eight years served as Clark County sheriff, responded by placing public safety at the center of his gubernatorial campaign, promising to reverse Democrats' "soft-on-crime policies and put an end to [their] dangerous legislation that makes our streets less safe." While the strategy proved successful for the Republican, who defeated Democratic incumbent Steve Sisolak by roughly 16,000 votes, Ford prevailed in his own reelection campaign against Republican Sigal Chattah.