House uses prisoner releases, school cuts to help balance budget

News  Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff). Friday, 10 May 2002.

Howard Fischer

Arizona drops coverage of non-therapeutic circumcision from Medicaid budget

PHOENIX – State lawmakers voted Thursday to release prisoners and let them serve their sentences at home, lease new school buildings instead of buying them for cash, cut $90 million earmarked for school repairs and even stop having the state pay for circumcision of boys born to needy women, all to balance next year's $6.57 billion budget.

The plan adopted by the House also cuts 3.125 percent from most state agencies – 2.25 percent for universities – on top of the 4.5 percent budget reductions they already sustained to balance this year's budget.

Other noted elements include: Abolishing the State Board of Community Colleges; Deferring more than $190 million in payments due to schools in June 2003 until the following fiscal year; Requiring Pima and Maricopa counties to house prisoners sentenced to less than a year without being reimbursed by the state; Taking $50 million from the state's rainy day fund.

The plan is drawing fire from Gov. Jane Hull – especially the idea of forcing the Department of Corrections to release inmates from prisons.

This budgetary item puts the department in the position of having to let bad guys out of jail before they finish their sentences, said gubernatorial press aide Francie Noyes. That threatens public safety.

The plan sets an absolute cap on the number of inmates it could have incarcerated. That would be the number of available prison beds plus another 2,850 inmates.

That higher figure is because the state has exceeded its official bed capacity for years, using other rooms to house inmates. The state already is close to the figure in the legislation: The most recent published figures show 2,844 inmates above capacity.

And when that limit is reached? The measure tells state Corrections Director Terry Stewart that for each new inmate he receives, someone else has to go.

This particular bill gives me the keys to the back door, Stewart told lawmakers. That's something you need to think about.

Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, said she has. It's a money issue, said Knaperek, who chairs the Appropriations Committee.

It costs $50 million to build a 1,000-bed prison. And housing each one including everything from corrections officers to guard them to the food to feed them, computes out at $58 a day.

By contrast, home arrest costs only $13.31 a day. Stewart said, though, the legislative solution is oversimplistic because he does not have the people to do the kind of monitoring necessary.

The community's not going to be safe if I can't supervise them in the community because I don't have home arrest officers, he said.

There would be some limits on Stewart's powers. He could not release people convicted of certain violent crimes, sex offenses or dangerous crimes against children. Those who are sentenced as dangerous or repetitive offenders also would be ineligible.

Those released would have to remain home except when permitted out for specific activities, like work, counseling or shopping. They would be subject to electronic monitoring, have to be employed or otherwise in gainful activities, be required to submit to drug and alcohol tests and mandated to pay at least a small part of the monitoring charge.

The release program is only part of the plan to save money on housing inmates. Another provision specifies that anyone sentenced in Pima or Maricopa county to less than a year in prison must do their time at a county jail – without the state reimbursing them the cost.

Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said that makes no sense, and not only because it unloads the state's burden on the counties. He said the counties lack the rehabilitation programs available in prisons, such as one operated by the state for repeat drunken drivers.

Knaperek responded that the state's two largest counties have a sufficiently large tax base to absorb the extra cost. That's why we have exempted the smaller counties, she said.

The legislative provision on circumcision stems from the discovery that the  External link Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System is charged $132 every time the procedure is performed. And with more than 12,600 baby boys born last year to women enrolled in the state health care program, that adds up.

Sen. Ruth Solomon, D-Tucson, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers needed to seek out and eliminate every program that is not necessary.

There are all kinds of reports now that say it isn't medically necessary, she said.


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