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CORRECTIONS SYSTEM STRUGGLES TO STAY AFLOAT

Utah legislators get a lot of political mileage on the law-and-order stump, winning votes for passing bills that send bad guys to prison.

But by 1993, according to analysts, there won't be any more room in Utah's three correctional facilities. For every new inmate sent up the river, another must go free.Yet lawmakers, as demonstrated in the recently ended 49th Legislature, continue to pass tough laws at a breakneck pace.

"This body has never met a penalty-enhancement bill it didn't like," complains Rep. Lee Ellertson, who works on the Department of Corrections' budget. "We're going to feel a pinch in the correction system unparalleled. It's going to come up and bite us in the seat."

Some would say it already has.

For the second year in a row, the Legislature has had to cover a $1 million-plus deficit in the Department of Corrections budget - the only department in the state unable to make do.

And, while a new administration is "cautiously optimistic" about bringing its beefed-up 1992-93 budget into the black, Ellertson and others aren't sure they can.

"You can't go on the way we are without finding someplace to put all these people," said Bill Dinehart, the corrections legislative fiscal analyst and sometime department critic.

"I'm holding my breath," said Ellertson. "Personally, I don't think they'll be able to do it."

But Corrections, by almost all accounts, has been given a fighting chance. Its 1992-93 budget of $94,196,800 is almost $6 million more than the previous year's. In addition, the department received more than $3.1 million in supplemental appropriations - $1.5 million to cover its shortfall and another $1.6 million to bolster medical services.

"I felt we were very successful with our budget," said Corrections Director Lane McCotter, who took the reins of the department earlier this year.

The major success in the session was passage of a $1.1 million prisoner education program aimed at reducing recidivism.

But two other bills - both intended to reduce prison population - failed. The first was a $1.2 million intensive early release parole program, which passed the House but died in the Senate.

The second was a $35 million bond to fund the second phase of the Gunnison Correctional Facility in Sanpete County.

The Legislature's inaction, combined with its penchant to pass law-and-order bills, is fast pushing the Utah correctional system toward a watershed, Dinehart said.

If projections are on target it will happen in January 1993. That's when every available bed in all three facilities, and leased beds in county jails throughout the state, will be full.

"For every guy they let in, they're going to have to let someone out," Dinehart said.

The trend began in 1985 with House Bill 208, which mandates minimum sentences for sex offenders. Since then the Legislature has passed a sheaf of bills every session enhancing penalties or making new crimes.

During that time, McCotter said, Utah's prison population has grown 144 percent, with a 21 percent leap in 1988-89 alone.

Prison growth is now averaging 7 percent a year. On Feb. 1 the total population at Point of the Mountain, Gunnison and the Iron County Correctional Facility in Cedar City was 3,300 inmates.

Nearly a quarter of them are incarcerated on sex offenses, a direct result of HB208.

That's already 345 more prisoners than Utah has beds. The other so-called "outcount" inmates are housed in county jails and federal prisons at the state's expense.

At that rate the budget for adult corrections will top $126 million in 1996, Dinehart said. By 1995 there will be a shortfall of 700 beds, even if lawmakers approve construction of Phase II Gunnison.

But lawmakers don't seem to be getting the message. Over the last five years, Ellertson said, the Legislature has passed an average of 16 enhancement bills a year.

If each of those bills produces just three new inmates - at an average cost of $17,000 a year for food, clothing and medical expenses - that's more than $800,000 a year, Dinehart said.

"The incredible thing is that we - the Legislature - are the driving force behind this, not an increase in crime," Ellertson said.

Dinehart's numbers bear him out. While Utah's crime rate remains well below the national average, its ratio of incarceration is growing rapidly. In 1980, 89 of every 100,000 Utahns went to prison. This year the ratio topped 171 per 100,000.

"We're racing toward the national average" of 256 per 100,000, Dinehart said. "That's wrong. That includes places like Houston and back-bay Boston. We shouldn't be anywhere near there."

Sen. Craig Peterson, who co-chairs the Corrections appropriations subcommittee with Ellertson, said the department, more than almost any other in the state, is at the Legislature's mercy.

"Unlike higher education, we don't have the option of putting a cap on enrollment," he said.

McCotter said he plans to spend the year between legislative sessions alerting lawmakers to the consequences of the numbers and urging them to bring Gunnison on line in 1993.

"If we're unsuccessful with that, then we have to provide an alternative, and that's an early release program," he said. "Everywhere I've been, that's political suicide. People don't like it . . . so it becomes a political tradeoff."

One thing going for McCotter is a clean slate. Lawmakers regularly locked horns with his gruff predecessor, Gary DeLand.

But McCotter said he will continue DeLand's policy of putting public safety first and finds flattering the allusion to being a "kinder, gentler" version of his former boss.

Still, Ellertson and Peterson believe McCotter when he promises a good-faith effort to bring the department back in the black next year.

"Of course, it may be just a honeymoon," Peterson said.