The Department of Corrections might have to release between 300 and 400 inmates by the end of March unless it receives funding for prison beds.
That was the estimate offered Monday by Corrections Executive Director Mike Chabries after two joint appropriations committees' budget recommendations provided little funding for increased prisons.
The Capital Facilities Joint Appropriations subcommittee voted not to recommend funding for the purchase of the 552-bed Oxbow Jail from Salt Lake County to house female prisoners.
Then, the Criminal Justice Joint Appropriations subcommittee declined to fund the $10.3 million that Chabries requested for jail contracts with county jails.
Because the Legislature underfunded the department last year, the money used to rent beds from county jails will be gone by the end of March, at which time the prison system is legally bound to develop a plan to start releasing inmates.
And the committee could only offer $1 million for a 288-bed expansion of the Gunnison Prison.
The committee placed funding for Gunnison at the top of its wish list it will send to Executive Appropriations, which makes the final spending decisions, in hopes that committee will find the remaining $4 million before the session ends Feb. 28.
"At this point I think they'll buy it," Criminal Justice Committee Co-Chair Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said of the Gunnison expansion.
Chabries and his staff are cautiously optimistic as well, but there's no guarantee at this point.
"I don't expect to be here during the end of the Executive Appropriations process," Chabries said. "I expect that Executive Appropriations and the governor will allot the space we need."
Rep. Jeff Alexander, Executive Appropriations co-chairman, said Corrections is not the only department feeling the squeeze and could make no promises. "We are aware of those concerns and we are now going through the process of looking at hot spots in the state budget," said Executive Appropriations co-chairman and Rep. Jeff Alexander, R-Provo. "It will definitely be looked at along with everything else."
Chabries sat in a chair at the department's basement office Monday evening at the Capitol, his glasses, removed, occasionally rubbing his forehead, wondering aloud how he'll find the $15 million he says is needed just to fund the expected increase of 325 prisoners next year.
"We get so caught up in funding beds because of the numbers, we never get to the innovative things," Chabries said. "We don't do anything at all proactive to try and affect future population in the state.
"Now we can only pray Executive Appropriations will deal with these issues," he added.
If the money doesn't come, Corrections and the State Board of Pardons and Parole would have to come up with an action plan to start releasing inmates. After running at capacity for 45 days, prisoners would have to be released.
Ironically, Corrections' money crunch comes in a year with a large budget surplus in the state.
Members of the Criminal Justice Committee are hoping Executive Appropriations will pass some of that surplus on to Corrections.
The Capital Facilities Joint Appropriations Committee hardly discussed the $19.5 million funding for the Oxbow Jail purchase. During a show of hands vote to place capital projects on a priority list, Oxbow received just one vote.
With or without Oxbow, prison officials say the real issue is where they'll place so many prisoners.
"We're hoping that the Legislature understands that even if they don't provide funding for Oxbow the issue is population growth and that hasn't diminished," Corrections spokesman Jesse Gallegos said.
Contributing: Associated Press