Tuesday, November 17, 2009

TN could release 4,000 prisoners to cut costs

Correction Dept. outlines plan for meeting budget By Chas Sisk • THE TENNESSEAN • November 17, 2009 Tennessee might release as many as 4,000 nonviolent felons, such as people convicted of drug dealing and robbery, under a plan outlined Monday by the Department of Correction to deal with the state's budget crisis. Correction Commissioner George Little said the department would have no choice but to recommend early release of inmates if it were to implement the budget cuts called for by Gov. Phil Bredesen. The department has already squeezed out savings by scaling back on roadside litter-removal crews and leaving about 400 positions unfilled, and it is relying heavily on federal stimulus funding in its current budget, he said. "This isn't scare tactics," he said. "We've got to make ends meet. … We would not propose these sorts of very serious and weighty options if we were not in such dire circumstances." The early-release plan, which Little laid out on the first day of state budget hearings, is meant to show how the Department of Correction would proceed if Bredesen were to go ahead with a cut of up to 9 percent from all state department budgets. The governor said the state may need to reduce spending by as much as $1.5 billion during the next fiscal year because of declining tax revenues and the end of the federal stimulus program. Bredesen, who will not finalize his budget proposal until early next year, said after the hearing that he would try to avoid so drastic a cut to the prison budget. "I obviously am not interested in returning hardened criminals back to the streets," he said. "But I've told each of them (departments) to come in and tell me, if I say you've got to have 9 percent, tell me how you can get it. … The best thing to do is to get all the possibilities on the table and sort through it." The governor also said equally tough cuts are contemplated for the Department of Children's Services. Victims group speaks out Verna Wyatt, executive director for You Have the Power, a Nashville-based victims rights group, said Children's Services and Correction are among the last departments the government should consider cutting. "I would rather drive my car over a pothole than have my son or daughter become a victim of a crime," she said. "Public safety — that should be first and foremost." To cut 9 percent, or $53 million, the Department of Correction would need to release about 3,300 prisoners held in local jails, Little said. That would save the department the $35 to $42 per prisoner per day that it pays local jails to cover the expense of housing inmates. Alternatively, the department could close one or two of the state's 14 prisons, a move that would result in the release of about 4,000 felons, Little said. Such a move probably would result in the release of more dangerous criminals, but it would prevent local sheriffs, judges and district attorneys from replacing inmates who were released with other criminals. Little said the department had not determined how long an inmate would have to serve before qualifying for early release. In either scenario, the department would aim to release inmates who had committed no worse than a Class C property crime, such as some forms of drug dealing or simple robbery. Class C felonies generally carry a sentence of three to 15 years. Prisoners who had committed less-serious Class D or Class E felonies might also be eligible. The state currently has about 19,700 people in its prisons, but the department already had plans to reduce that population to 18,500 inmates with the closure of the state prison in Whiteville when federal stimulus funding runs out next year. The program is also separate from an ongoing Department of Correction effort to reduce the inmate population by 3,000 prisoners over the next two years by fighting recidivism. "We've, frankly, exhausted all of our options other than, frankly, prison population management," Little said.

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