Freeing inmates eyed as cost-saving step

Freeing inmates eyed as cost-saving step

December 1st, 2009 by Jacqueline Koch in News

FELONY PENALTIES

* Class C felonies - three-to-15-year prison term

* Class D felonies - two-to-12-year prison term

* Class E felonies - one-to-six-year prison term

Source: Tennessee code

INMATES BY THE NUMBERS

* 5,398 - Inmates locally sentenced in county/local jails

* 2,465 - Inmates held in county/local jails as TDOC back-up

* 19,462 - Inmates in TDOC prisons

* 11,139 - People on parole through community supervision

* 48,924 - People on probation through community supervision

Source: Tennessee Department of Correction

The Tennessee Department of Correction could release inmates early to trim millions of dollars from its budget, but officials hope the state can find money elsewhere.

That's a sentiment shared by local law enforcement agencies and community groups.

"If we had to release people earlier than they need to be released, especially without some of the programs (they) get in prison, it could have an impact on public safety," said TDOC spokeswoman Dorinda Carter. "We're hoping we don't have to go this route."

She said the department could release nonviolent offenders with a Class C property crime felony, generally involving drug deals or robbery. Inmates booked on charges of Class D or E felonies also may be eligible, she said.

Gov. Phil Bredesen asked agencies in Tennessee to find ways to cut as much as 9 percent from their budgets. That comes to about $53 million for the Department of Correction, whose total budget is about $590 million.

Releasing about 3,300 state prisoners held in local jails would save about $40 a day that TDOC pays to house the inmates. Most of those could be in a state facility but there is no available space for them.

During state budget hearings, TDOC Commissioner George Little said another option would be to close one or two of the state's prisons, releasing about 4,000 felons. There now are 14 state prisons.

The department sees no other feasible plan to cut costs, especially because 400 job positions remain vacant, Ms. Carter said.

"I think we've cut just about everywhere we could cut," she said. "We're down to the bone."

Decisions have not been made about which jails would release the inmates, Ms. Carter said.

The governor has said he will try to avoid major cuts to prison funds. He is expected to present his 2011 budget proposal early next year, so no decision will be made until then at the earliest.

But when it comes to releasing nonviolent prisoners, Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble questioned the meaning of "nonviolent" and worried the move would put public safety at risk.

"I don't think people need to be fooled by these violent and nonviolent categories," Sheriff Gobble said. "All criminals are potentially violent. And just because somebody hasn't raped, murdered or assaulted somebody doesn't mean we need to be careless and let them out of prison before they serve their full sentences under the law."

About 150 of the 3,300 inmates proposed for release would return to Chattanooga, estimated Tim Dempsey, executive director of Chattanooga Endeavors, a charitable organization dedicated to helping offenders restore ties to their communities.

Chattanooga, like many communities, lacks the resources and funding to support former inmates by finding them jobs and places to live, Mr. Dempsey said. Without that stability, former inmates are more likely to reoffend and wind up back in prison, he said.

"I think the community needs to be able to deal with the people as they're coming out," he said. "It's not fair for anybody - not for the nonprofits, the community, the citizens in those communities - for people to just be unloaded on them."

Marion County Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett said the facility there regularly houses state inmates, and releasing them would free up bed space for county inmates with shorter sentences. But Sheriff Burnett does not support the proposal.

"We deal with a lot of repeat offenders, and they're just going to be right back out in the community causing problems, dealing drugs, stealing things," he said.