Tenn. To Release Inmates Early To Save Money
(03/23/2011)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State lawmakers plan to release more than 2,000 prison inmates two months early to save $5.7 million over the next year.

The Tennessee Department of Correction will merge prison rehabilitation programs, allowing more inmates who complete those programs to shave 60 days off their sentences. Inmates who committed violent and nonviolent offenses could be eligible for early release.

Correction officials expect 2,200 inmates to be released over the next two years. Their empty beds would be filled by state inmates who have been housed at local jails because of prison overcrowding. About 3,000 state inmates are housed at local jails.

Every state inmate housed in a local jail costs the state about $43 a day, compared with $20 a day if the state houses the inmate in a prison. Tennessee spent almost $126 million in the last fiscal year to house state inmates in local jails.

The Department of Correction cut almost $6 million from its current budget due to the state’s budget woes. It also saved $13.8 million last year by freezing more than 330 positions and $600,000 by giving inmates less milk at meals.

Lower-risk inmates were already eligible for the 60-day sentence “credit” if they completed their GED while in prison or participated in an intensive vocational program that taught skills such as carpentry.

The new measure will pair inmates with a career and life skills program that includes behavioral therapy, listening to victim panels and learning decision-making, conflict resolution and communication skills to help with employment.

The program will target inmates already close to release to more quickly free up beds and ease the pressure on local jails. Some jails are close to or past capacity.

The Sumner County jail, built in 2004, is already close to capacity with 600 inmates and 662 beds, while the new jail in Wilson County will likely reach capacity in just three years.

Other states are also pursuing measures to ease corrections budgets. Ohio is looking to sell five prisons to private companies and charge inmates $1 a month to help pay electric bills and Maryland hopes to release enough state prisoners to close an entire prison. Yet other states are considering decriminalizing certain drug crimes, using alternative sentencing programs such as house arrest and GPS monitors, and laying off corrections staffs.

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