LaDawn Prue well remembers the last early release program at the Utah State Prison - she was shot and paralyzed in 1982 by an inmate participating in the program.
The incident ended that particular early release program, shook up state corrections from top to bottom and led to a protracted lawsuit.Now 10 years later, inmate overcrowding is again staring prison officials in the face, and once again lawmakers and prison officials are looking at early release programs as an option.
Rep. Lee Ellertson, R-Provo, does not like the idea of letting criminals out early, but "if the Legislature doesn't deal with overcrowding, the courts will and sooner than many think." Perhaps by the end of the year.
Ellertson has sponsored a bill to allow the emergency release of prison inmates in the event of overcrowding. And as much as he would like to, Ellertson says there are no guarantees an episode like the one that happened to LaDawn Prue won't be repeated.
Ellertson's latest bill adds to a schizophrenic bundle of corrections matters still pending before the 1993 Legislature. Some legislators want to let prisoners out early, saying locking them up for long sentences costs too much money. Other lawmakers want to lock them up for even longer periods as punishment for the criminal and protection for citizens.
Sen. Haven Barlow, R-Layton, is one lawmaker who says the Legislature has gone way overboard in mandating longer prison terms. He is sponsoring legislation that would relax many of the so-called minimum-mandatory sentences that prohibit the Board of Pardons from considering certain offenders for parole until a minimum amount of time has been served.
"I'm saying we should take a look at these inmates, evaluate their risk to society and give the board more leeway (in deciding the appropriate length of sentence)," Barlow said.
In particular, Barlow says lawmakers should take a closer look at minimum-mandatory sentences for sex offenders. Currently, one in every three inmates - about 700 altogether - are sex offenders serving exceptionally long minimum-mandatory sentences.
"Do we keep building more and more prisons, taking money away from schools and telling kids they can't go to college to do it?" Barlow questions. "People get emotional about it (sex offenses), but as lawmakers we have overreacted. We have gone overboard. It's time we look at other alternatives to prison. But don't label us as soft on sex offenders because we want to look at other options."
Given the political implications of letting sex offenders out of prison, Barlow, who has served in the Legislature longer than any other lawmaker, admits he will have a tough time selling the idea to his less-experienced colleagues.
An easier sell are bills to make life a little tougher on inmates by forcing even greater restitution on criminals and giving law officers more latitude in dealing with inmates.
For example, Rep. Dan Tuttle, D-Magna, has an idea what to do with criminals who escape: shoot them. Tuttle has introduced a bill that says the act of escape from a secure facility - like the prison - is in itself such a crime that the use of deadly force on its face is allowed in an attempt to stop the prisoner. In short, if they run, prison officials or law officers can shoot.
"This is the Ronnie Lee Gardner bill," says Tuttle. In April 1985, Gardner, already serving a life sentence for the murder of a bartender, ran from armed prison officers in the basement of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice, grabbed a gun placed under a water cooler by an accomplice, fired at the officers and then shot and killed an attorney and seriously wounded a court bailiff.
"Gardner didn't have a gun when he first ran" from officers, said Tuttle. "They (officers) are armed, there to do what they have to to stop an escape. They should be able to do it whether (the inmate) is armed or not." Gardner was caught and later sentenced to die for killing the attorney.
But the biggest problem facing the Department of Corrections is how to deal with burgeoning inmate populations. Ellertson has great sympathy for Prue and others who may have been victimized by prison inmates set free. But inmate overcrowding and the costs of building and staffing prisons makes his bill mandatory, he says.
"This is an escape valve for overcrowded prisons. That's all," says Ellertson. "I, no one, can give any assurances that there won't be another LaDawn Prue. There are inmates who get out on regular parole who reoffend, and may commit a crime worse than the one that landed them in prison in the first place. All I can say is if we don't have some kind of early release program the courts will impose one on us."
Ellertson's bill says that when the prison reaches its "operative capacity," the prison director will declare an overcrowding emergency. The governor will be informed and then inmates who already have parole dates can be considered for immediate release. The Board of Pardons is then informed, and the board can give a reason not to release the inmate. But baring a board warning, the inmate will be cut loose and placed on parole.
Except for the final review by the board, the procedure follows rather closely the system used back in December 1982 when, facing prison overcrowding, prison officials decided to release Kenneth Roberts, a convicted sex offender, to an Ogden halfway house.
Roberts was released just before Christmas. Unknown to the officials who released him, the half-way house always closed for several days over the Christmas holiday. With the half-way house closed, Roberts went home to his wife, got a gun and went on a crime spree that left Prue, then 19, lying paralyzed in her Sandy driveway. Roberts was captured the next day after kidnapping another woman and returned to prison.Comment on this story
Then-Gov. Scott M. Matheson fired several state executives over the incident and later elevated corrections operations to the level of a department with considerable more personnel, money and resources. Prue sued the state and settled for an undisclosed amount.
Back then, prison officials were giving early releases to prisoners in an attempt to stay out of court because of overcrowding. Today, says Ellertson, the prison is operating at 98 percent capacity. "We may face (overcrowding) by the end of 1993. This is an honest, best-effort attempt."