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Corrections boss excited about rosy report

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Department of Corrections executive director Mike Chabries could hardly hold back his excitement as he sat before a legislative appropriations subcommittee.

"The reason I'm excited today is because this is a new situation for the Department of Corrections to be in," Chabries told the committee. "I'm not here asking for more beds. In fact, I'm here today to report to you that I have three years' growth available for the state of Utah."

This year's optimism was in stark contrast to the 2001 session, when Chabries begged the same legislators to fund more prison beds. Often criticized as one of the state's biggest cash cows, Chabries said his department is now leaner than ever.

Chabries attributed his department's current surplus of about 900 beds to the state's drop in crime as well as a change in philosophy that was largely spurred by more than $7 million in cuts to this year's budget, which ends in July.

To save money, corrections closed the Promontory Point Correctional Facility and delayed opening an expansion of the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. The shrinkage dropped the prison's population from 5,900 to about 5,300 and forced administrators to find more creative ways of monitoring inmates in the community.

Thanks to this new philosophy, parole agents are now working with inmates five or six months before they're released to help them find jobs and housing, Chabries said.

The department has also streamlined its medical care budget, reducing overnight hospital stays by 30 percent. Despite the leaner budget, Chabries also said his department can now provide 30 percent more care for inmates and reduce the waiting period for a doctor from three weeks to three days.

This year, the Legislative Fiscal Analyst is recommending a general fund appropriation of about $178 million, roughly $8 million less than last year. With the cuts Chabries has already implemented, he said he'll only have to shave another $1.2 million from his budget. "I am not going to overspend this budget this year," Chabries said.

The committee also heard presentations on the costs and benefits of privatizing prison medical care. Currently 32 states use some form of privatized prison care, said Doyle Moore, Founder and Vice President of Sales for Prison Health Services, Inc.

Corrections officials say they're open to looking into the possibility of privatizing, but aren't in any rush to switch over immediately since their own efforts to cut medical costs have been so successful.

Co-chair Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, also made a plea to fellow committee members that they make funding additional sex offender treatment a priority. With an extra $280,000, the department could ad two licensed clinical therapists, two certified social workers, one office technician, one psychological technician and conduct an additional 140 polygraph exams.

Committee members will return Wednesday to prioritize their recommendations to the Executive Appropriations Committee.

E-mail: djensen@desnews.com