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Early release of prisoners risky

State Corrections Director Pete Haun is using early release as a tool to manage Utah's burgeoning prison population. But the practice of freeing convicts prior to their parole date should be used prudently and underscores the need for more prison space to alleviate overcrowding without compromising public safety.

Is the Legislature taking note?Haun began asking for special Board of Pardons and Parole hearings soon after he took over the department in July. The board has reviewed the release dates of some 150 inmates and determined 70 percent of them can go earlier than their scheduled times.

The practice helps circumvent the state's emergency release law, which says if the inmate population hits operational capacity for 45 consecutive days, inmates must automatically be released.

Haun's predecessors did more prisoner juggling, using county jails, out-of-state contracts and even dormitory-style housing to keep the numbers below the limit. Those methods had their drawbacks, as does early parole.

Using Haun's approach, the parole board uses various criteria to determine if somebody merits an early out. Admittedly, the sentence shortening often is only a month or two. But it may send an unintentional message that the state is soft on crime.

And rest assured that the first time someone released early commits a violent crime, the populace will be howling about the practice.

Haun's tactic may be OK in the short-run, without viable alternatives, but it is not good practice over time. Prisoners should serve their appropriate time and be released on merit or when their sentence is exhausted, with adequate parole supervision. They should not have to be sprung early due to prison population pressure.

That is something the Legislature should consider when it convenes next January.