State Considers Releasing Thousands of Inmates to Save Money

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Corrections Department Commissioner George Little says the only way to meaningfully cut the state’s prison budget is to grant early releases to between 3,000 and 4,000 prisoners the agency deems of little or no violent threat to society.

“We have frankly exhausted all other alternatives besides (prison) population management,” Little told Gov. Phil Bredesen Monday during the first day of the governor’s budget-writing hearings for next year.

“We did consider other options, and those options would have involved, frankly, higher levels of releases and the decommissioning or taking offline of additional prison beds,” Little continued. “We felt that between the two, in our view, unpleasant choices, that this was the more palatable of the two.”

Bredesen is requesting the agency lop 9 percent or $53 million off its desired $664 million 2011 budget in order to address the state’s fiscal woes. The governor called the proposal to release offenders before their sentences had expired “a dramatic step” and said he wouldn’t sign off on it unless the savings actually show up in the state’s budget.

Little said those who’d be considered for release include offenders convicted of nonviolent class C, D, or E felonies and within a certain number of months or years of release eligibility, or inmates suffering a “terminal illness or permanent incapacitation.”

Little added that the agency believes “people who are in prison are by and large people who ought to be in prison.”