State aims to free felons early and cut jail payments

State aims to free felons early and cut jail payments

February 2nd, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

NASHVILLE-Tennessee would accelerate the release of some felons from state prisons as well as cut payments to Hamilton County and some other counties that house state prisoners under a budget-cutting plan presented Tuesday by the state's prisons chief.

Correction Department Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield told Gov. Bill Haslam, who took office Jan. 15, that the plan would satisfy directives to departments to prepare cuts of 1 to 3 percent.

The 3 percent plan calls for cutting payments to local jails from $35 to $32 per prisoner per day. Schofield said, "This is one where we all kind of share the pain."

"It's tough for everybody," said Schofield, whom Haslam lured away from Georgia where he served as an assistant corrections commissioner and chief of staff. "Naturally, counties will say, 'No we can't do it.'"

The proposal would cut $3.3 million in payments to the 66 local jails that do not have state contracts. The department would have to cut its budget by $12 million under the 3 percent scenario.

Under the 1 percent scenario, the state would extend sentence credits to nearly 2,200 more state prisoners annually, allowing them to reduce their sentences by 60 days if they complete education and other programs aimed at helping them re-enter society.

"It gives them incentive," Schofield said of the proposal, which would save $5.7 million. "It's not a giveaway. It's not like we're opening the door and letting people go...We want our offenders to be better prepared when they get out."

With regard to jail payments, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said the county houses about 45 state inmates at any given time. The proposed $3 reduction would cost the county about $49,000 based on current averages.

"It would hurt us," Hammond said, noting the state already doesn't pay the county its real costs for housing prisoners.

He noted that the new governor's deputy, former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, fought hard over the years to boost payments to local jails. Asked if he found the situation ironic, Hammond chuckled and suggested a reporter ask Ramsey.

Hammond also said, "If I felt like we were being targeted, I'd be upset about it. But I realize everybody's in the same pot of hot water right now across the state."

Ramsey later said, "I think the governor will look very strongly at anything that adds to the burden of local governments."

Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor, said to "take a step like that I realize is going to be inflicting pain, and that's one of the things I don't want to do."

He said part of the hearing process is to determine "how painful" cuts to all departments would be. He said he continues to wrestle with the possibility of closing the Whiteville Correctional Facility, which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America.

It would save the state about $18 million.

Budget hearings continue today. On Monday, Haslam seemed hesitant to limit lottery-funded scholarships for wealthier Tennesseans to solve shortfalls in the HOPE Scholarship program.

"I don't think we're ready to go there yet," Haslam said. "Let's get another year or two to see if we need to react in some way like that."

The comments came after a session on higher education in which Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said the lottery program has an $86 million shortfall. At the same time, he said, figures show Tennessee is providing $90 million in scholarships to students who can afford to pay full tuition.

"It's just interesting," said Morgan, who did not endorse specifically means testing for lottery scholarships.