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Shortening sentences loses favor in Legislature

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on April 28, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
April 28, 2011 1:30 pm

A proposal a Senate committee considered today for cutting Department of Corrections costs was notable for what it didn’t contain: plans to knock 60 days off of inmate sentences.

The idea was pitched as part of the Senate budget plan and would have exempted inmates seen as a high risk to commit violent crimes upon release. The House budget went even farther, calling for cutting 120 days from sentences and not making the same exemption. (Both plans excepted inmates convicted of violent and sex offenses).

But senators didn’t include the 60-day early release in the version of SB 5891 that received a public hearing today. It contains other aspects of the Senate budget, saving $14 million:

  • Eliminate supervision of inmates released from jails. Exceptions would include inmates seen as a high risk to commit new violent crimes and those with histories of domestic violence.
  • Reduce supervision of first-time offenders. Supervision time for first-time convicts who commit lower-level crimes would be cut in half.
  • Prevent the Corrections Department from holding inmates past the release date they have earned through good behavior. The department would no longer be allowed to hold inmates past that date because of, for example, uncertainty about where they would live. More money would be provided for housing vouchers to reduce that uncertainty, and the department wouldn’t be forced to release any inmates more than a year before their original sentence is up.

To criticism that the latter proposal would turn loose dangerous offenders, senators including GOP budget writer Joe Zarelli and Democrat Debbie Regala said they would be back on the streets within a year anyway.

Law enforcement and Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said that’s one more year of reduced crime, and said the cuts would harm public safety.

But they still prefer them to the Senate’s original plan, not to mention the House’s 120-day early release. Rep. Jeannie Darneille‘s bill hasn’t moved forward. House Democrats are trying to figure out if the $26 million plan has a chance of acceptance in the more conservative Senate.

They’re also grappling with the logistics of the release. It’s difficult to manage the closing of prison units and layoffs of corrections workers, Darneille said, in part because they have effects on staff at other prisons due to employees’ right to “bump” into other open positions if they lose their jobs.

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