Friday, January 11, 2008

Early Release Hitting RI

A packet of early-release proposals — aimed at reducing the state prison population by at least 211 inmates — is headed to the legislature, with advocates hoping the seriousness of the state’s financial situation and the possibility the state may soon hit a court-imposed inmate cap will make lawmakers more amenable this year to some of the proposals.

One would lop 10 days per month — or the equivalent of 30 percent — off the sentence of an inmate who “faithfully observed” the prison’s “rules and requirements.”

Another would provide an inmate with an opportunity to further shorten his or her sentence by 5 days for every month of participation in a job-training, educational, drug-abuse treatment and behavior-modification program in prison, and another 30 days off for completing any such program.
Rhode Island’s financial plight has forced the legislature to confront early-release proposals that floundered in past years. The state faces projected deficits of $151 million this year, and $450 million in the year that begins on July 1. Each prisoner costs the state an average of $40,000.

Adding to the urgency is a warning from Jackvony, as the chairman of the state’s Criminal Justice Oversight Committee. If current trends continue, by next month the state could approach an inmate cap that would require the committee “to consider instituting options to release offenders from incarceration,” Jackvony warned Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva Weed in a recent memo.

The cap stems from a legal agreement in the early 1990s that restricts prison capacities. It has been adjusted upward several times in the years since, most recently this summer. The inmate cap stands at 4,051. The inmate census reached an all-time high of 4,000 in the fall. Barring action by the legislature, the projected population is expected to hit 4,147 next year, Wall said.

Wall told the panel that approving the early-release package by April 1 would essentially “buy the state two years” before it has to confront the potential for overcrowding again.

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