Too many inmates and not enough beds is a familiar cry in Utah's prisons, and it's up to the director of Corrections to decide how to deal with the problem.

If the director doesn't, Utah law will. The state's emergency-release law says if the prison population reaches operational capacity for 45 consecutive days, officials have to start releasing inmates.Former director Lane McCotter used county jails, out-of-state contracts and even built dormitory-style housing in buildings where inmates used to learn job skills to keep the numbers in check.

The state's new director, Pete Haun, is taking a different tack.

Haun is asking the Board of Pardons and Parole to hold special attention hearings for certain inmates, who already have a parole date, to see if they could be released early.

He started asking for the special hearings about three weeks after he took over the department in July. His spokesman, Jesse Gallegos, said the department is looking at inmates who already have a parole date and who meet certain criteria.

"The board decides if it's more appropriate to release them than serve additional prison time," Gallegos said. "Most of this is precipitated by lack of bed space . . . it's an effective way to (manage) the prison."

Board chairman Mike Sibbett estimates the board has reviewed the dates of about 150 inmates and decided about 70 percent of them can go earlier than their scheduled dates.

Is that any different than triggering the dreaded emergency-re-lease law?

One legislator said it is.

"(The law) requires that you have to let people out," said Rep. Blake Chard, R-Layton, one of the co-chairmen who oversee the department. "Theoretically, under what they're doing now, they're merely looking at certain criteria and deciding if they should let them out."

Sibbett said Haun is just managing the prison's population with a tool that's been available for years. He said other directors have used it, but the last two turned to the board very little.

Why has Haun done so?

"For the first time, we have an executive director that understands it," Sibbett said. He said the board held 2,000 special review hearings last year, but the request to look at the cases came from the Division of Field Operations, which supervises those on probation and parole.

And he bristles at the idea that the board is just releasing inmates to create bed space. The board decides who gets out and when based on an array of factors that don't include how much space the prison has. In some cases, he said it's a matter of saying a person can be paroled in September instead of October.

Even so, Chard acknowledges bed space is a factor that has to be considered and says he's taking a "wait and see" attitude on the practice.

"I'm a little concerned with letting people out before their parole dates," he said. Chard has asked to see the forms the department is using to screen inmate and other information before deciding how he feels. He's also waiting to see how inmates respond to the program.

"Some of it depends on how those who were released earlier behave," he said.