The Andrus administration is drafting legislation to allow the Board of Corrections to order the early release of inmates to ease prison overcrowding.

The plan, triggered by what would be called an overcrowding emergency, was being seen as a safety valve by prison officials facing an inmate population in excess of the limits dictated by a federal court and state inmates awaiting space in county jails approaching 200.There has been no time in the past several years that an overcrowding emergency would not have been in effect under the tentative provisions of the administration plan.

And there is no relief in sight. Although a new 190-bed cellblock opens at the prison farm south of Boise next October and the new women's prison opens in Pocatello a month earlier, corrections officials do not believe they will be able to completely clear the county jail backlog.

"Once you stop enacting new laws and harsher laws, it still takes four years after it stops for the people in the pipeline to work out," said Eugene Larson, head of the field and community services for the Corrections Department. "But we haven't stopped. We have another 10 or 15 sentencing enhancements being introduced this year."

The state will spend $3.2 million in payments to counties for housing state inmates, and officials estimate that without any relief that figure will exceed $4.5 million in the coming budget year.

"We're going to be in violation of the federal court order in the next few months," Corrections Director Richard Vernon said. "We could easily have 300 people backed up in the county jails by summer. . . . we're at gridlock in our institutions."

While Gov. Cecil Andrus has not endorsed the early release proposal, he has made it clear to Vernon and Corrections Board Chairman Nick Miller that there will be no additional cash for new prison cell construction.

As a result, Andrus aides have acknowledged the board's need to find a solution to overcrowding, and they endorsed exploration of all feasible alternatives.

Board members conceded judges could oppose the scheme because, in effect, it reworks the sentences they impose. But the board hoped to win the support of the parole commission for the early release concept before pressing the governor to include it in his legislative package.

"It's a proposal that has been put before him, and he's considering it," Andrus spokesman Scott Peyron said.

Vernon called early release "a lousy way to do business, but it's the only way we have to do it." Officials called the dilemma the result of inconsistent political pandering to both voter desires for harsh criminal penalties as well as their demands that taxes not rise.

Details of the release plan were still being worked out. But generally, the board would have available to it a list of 150 to 200 inmates who have not become eligible for parole but who would be extremely likely to be eligible once they have served their minimum sentences.

Those inmates would begin being released once the number of state inmates reaches 95 percent of the prison system's capacity and remains there for four weeks. Prison capacity would include some residual figure for county jail space, Miller said, probably about 100 inmates.