Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Inmates walk along the fence the will connect the new western expansion at the jail expansion in Gunnison last March.

Up to 550 inmates from Utah's prisons could be released as early as September because funding for a massive prison expansion in Gunnison has been yanked.

The Utah Legislature took $54.5 million for the Central Utah Correctional Facility's maximum security expansion to backfill all state agencies facing the budget crisis. It was able to save some jobs and fund some programs.

The flip side is the Utah Department of Corrections needed that money to prepare for an influx of criminals by 2011.

"The loss of those 192 beds and the loss of a parole violator center has created a situation that is quickly reaching a crisis," state corrections spokeswoman Angie Welling said Tuesday.

Conventional wisdom holds that in a bad economy, crime goes up. Late last year, corrections officials saw a spike in inmates coming into the prisons. By law, if the prisons max out on bed space, they must release inmates. Welling said their projections have it happening as early as September or as late as 2010.

The state prisons have already reached their 1,250-bed capacity in county jails the agency contracts with to house inmates because of funding issues. The Utah Department of Corrections refuses to house first-degree felons in county jails after a series of escapes occurred in 2007.

Corrections will work with the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole to determine what inmates will be released. They are typically prisoners who are nonviolent and have already been given a parole date — it's just moved up to accommodate the statutory requirements.

"We go through the case and make decisions based on the merits of each case," parole board spokesman Jim Hatch said Tuesday.

Inmate releases have historically led to public outcry, but corrections officials insist they're not trying to be alarmist to secure funding.

"What we're doing is just letting them know the impacts of their decisions. We're not crying wolf or scaring people into doing this," Welling said.

The Legislature's capital facilities committee will be briefed on the situation on Thursday.