Utah corrections director warns of possible emergency releases by this summer

Published: Thursday, May 20 2010 1:10 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Dwindling prison beds, a decimated budget and a heavy flow of newly sentenced criminals will likely put the Utah state prison system in an emergency release situation before the end of the year, corrections executive director Tom Patterson said Wednesday.

Patterson told a legislative interim committee the influx of new prisoners over recent months is tracking much higher than expected and the remaining 108 available beds will quickly be occupied. After that, inmates could be farmed out to county jails, except the money to fund that contingency isn't available. The remaining option is to enact an emergency release program that will require the state parole board to evaluate which prisoners can safely be released before their sentences are complete.

"We have no new beds in construction right now," Patterson said. "Our projections were 10 new inmates per month, but have grown to 37 in each of the past two months."

Patterson said maximum capacity could be reached as early as this summer. There are currently more than 6,600 prisoners in the state correctional system.

Patterson told the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee his department budget has been reduced by more than $20 million in the last two legislative sessions, with those cuts coming on top of lost capital funding that would have gone toward two new pods in the Gunnison facility and a 300-bed parole-violation center. Without the additional space, the system is bursting at the seams. Patterson said they plan to set up cots in recreational areas as a stopgap measure.

State law requires that once the corrections system is at maximum capacity and in an emergency release operation, the system must maintain capacity by releasing one prisoner for every new incoming inmate.

Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said the last time the prison system maxed out, in the summer of 2001, about 240 inmates were released early. All of those prisoners were incarcerated for nonviolent, non-sex offenses, Gehrke said, and all were within 30 to 90 days of their scheduled parole dates. Candidates for early release are determined by corrections administrators and then submitted to the state parole board, which has the final say on who gets out early.

Parole board spokesman Jim Hatch said Wednesday that the last emergency early release "went fine" and that, to his knowledge, none of those prisoners committed serious crimes after leaving jail. Hatch said the five-member board, which is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Utah Senate, screens the list provided by corrections officials and looks at a variety of criteria, including how the prisoner behaved while incarcerated. A simple majority vote — 3 out of 5 — moves the prisoner to early release.

Patterson said another challenge of operating at capacity is the inability to distribute inmates according to their evaluated risk factor. Currently, high-risk prisoners are kept isolated from the general population — an option that disappears when the prison runs out of beds.

"We classify inmates when they come in, and house them accordingly," Patterson said. "As we near capacity, those lines blur. … Higher-risk inmates will start to blend into the general population, creating higher risks for inmates and higher risks for staff."

Patterson said averting the emergency-release situation can only be accomplished with further funding from the Legislature. It costs the state about $26,000 per year to house one inmate.

An influx of new money into the corrections budget, however, is not likely to be considered by lawmakers anytime before the 2011 session.

On Wednesday, Senate President Michael Waddoups, who also sits on the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, said he was confident that, if early releases became necessary, the screening mechanisms in place ensure that those prisoners who walk out early do not pose a public threat.

Waddoups said the state has a higher than average incarceration rate because it aggressively prosecutes dangerous criminals, a characteristic he said is a positive because it contributes to maintaining public safety.

e-mail: araymond@desnews.com

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