Saturday, November 23, 2002

State may release felons to save money


Prison populations booming amid budget shortfall

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - Some felons may be released from custody earlier than usual if the state can't afford to keep them behind bars, Gov. Paul Patton said Thursday.

Mr. Patton said a booming prison population and $509 million in projected budget cuts over the next two years place the state in a bind.

Unless the state gets more revenue from tax increases or other sources - which legislators predict is unlikely - the early release of prisoners is one possible answer, he said.

"We have our prisons just as full as they can be," Mr. Patton said. "And I think they're already stressed. They're already stretched in terms of staffing."

The first prisoners to be released would come from among the 3,200 lowest-level, Class D felons held in local jails, with an emphasis on nonviolent offenders, according to a budget report the Patton administration released Wednesday. The state pays local jails $27.51 a day for each state prisoner.

Mr. Patton didn't say what would happen to prisoners released early. Typically, they are placed on home detention or monitored by parole officers until their sentence expires.

With six weeks left until the 2003 General Assembly begins, Mr. Patton said he would rather legislators raise more revenue to ease the massive shortfall instead of slashing spending to prisons, schools, Medicaid and libraries. Mr. Patton said Kentucky already has trimmed $464 million in the last three years and drained its "rainy-day" fund.

However, he would not specify what measures he might support, such as an increase in the cigarette tax or expanded gambling. Mr. Patton said he wants to start a public discussion about the serious risks of deeper budget cuts, not put anti-tax legislators on the defensive with suggestions for tax increases.

"We're not proposing a solution; we're trying to establish the magnitude of the problem," said the governor, who ends his second and final term in December 2003.

In response, top legislators - particularly in the Republican-controlled Senate - said they don't oppose the early release of nonviolent criminals, while they do oppose higher taxes.

"I am sure that there are people incarcerated that could be managed in a community setting more efficiently," Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, said. "It's probably something we ought to look at. It's very expensive to warehouse someone who's not a threat to the community."

Neither the House nor the Senate is likely to approve the "major tax increase" that would be necessary to avoid the budget shortfall Mr. Patton fears, said House Majority Leader Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.

More than 11,000 prisoners are in Kentucky's 12 state-owned and two private prisons, at an annual expense of $17,849 per inmate.




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