By: Gary Grado / Capitol Times
A swelling prisoner population is driving millions of dollars in requested budget increases for the Arizona Department of Corrections.
The department, which is budgeted to receive $997 million from the general fund in fiscal year 2015, told the governor in a formal budget request more money is needed in fiscal year 2016 to cover more beds and a bump in the per diem and annual price adjustment for a private health care provider.
The population has grown by 1,893 prisoners since fiscal-year 2013 and the department expects 1,920 more to be incarcerated by fiscal year 2016, according to a letter to Gov. Jan Brewer. The population stood at 42,052 on Aug. 31.
Department director Charles Ryan told Brewer in writing that the increase will cost an estimated $26 million from the previous fiscal-year to cover. Overall, the department is asking for an increase of $73 million in the next fiscal year to pay for requests that also include more staff, pay raises, a halfway house for parolees and an improved database.
“ADC’s authorization request seeks to keep up with this future growth, as prison overcrowding presents a severe risk to inmate management and public safety,” Ryan said.
The department is also asking for authorization for another 3,000 beds, but didn’t ask for funding for them. Ryan reported to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee there is a surplus of 642 beds. But there is actually a shortfall of 4,592 after counting all of the temporary beds, those in day-rooms, double bunks in cells built for one, tents and Quonset huts, which are World War II-era temporary quarters.
Ryan said the population grew at an average of 1,200 prisoners a year from 1980 to 2009, but flattened and actually decreased slightly from 2009 to 2012.
He said the decrease was due to fewer probation revocations by county probation officers and a decrease in commitments of non-U.S. citizens. The historical growth pattern resumed in 2012 due to increased commitments and fewer releases.
Lawmakers appropriated roughly $20 million in fiscal-year 2015 to pay for 1,000 beds in medium security and 500 in maximum.
Caroline Isaacs, executive director of American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that challenges the state’s use of private prisons and advocates for changes in sentencing laws, said even though the state is facing a potential crisis, lawmakers historically find it difficult to say no to public safety.
“Obviously we’re going to gear up for a big, old fight over this,” Isaacs said. “I think the discussion needs to be now: Do we keep building prisons and siphon money off from everything else in the budget or do we do something different because we can’t possibly keep growing this way?”
Analysts with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Oct. 7 told lawmakers and economists with the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committee of Reference that Arizona could be looking at a $520 million deficit in the current fiscal year and $1 billion in the next fiscal year.
Isaacs said the state might start by looking at its truth-in-sentencing laws, which require prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their time before being eligible for release. Most other states with truth-in-sentencing require only 65 percent and only for violent offenders, Isaacs said.
Isaacs also questioned the way the department classifies prisoners. For example, the department reports in its August monthly snapshot of statistics that 71 percent of it’s population are violent offenders. But Isaacs points out that when adding the numbers of prisoners committed under the long list of typically violent offenses such as murder, kidnapping, assault and child abuse the sum is only half the population.
Department spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said a prisoner’s classification depends on more than just the offense he was committed under. He said the department looks at a prisoner’s entire criminal history, whether he is a repeat offender and the history, if any, with the department.
DOC Population Growth
Aug. 2013: 40,720
Sept. 2013: 40,817
Oct. 2013: 40,930
Nov. 2013: 40,956
Dec. 2013: 41,031
Jan: 2014: 41,274
Feb. 2014: 41,270
March 2014: 41,363
April 2014: 41,532
May 2014: 41,528
June 2014: 41,773
July 2014: 41,854
Aug. 2014: 42,052
Budget Requests Tied to Growth
• $5 million to increase prisoner per diem from $10.10 to $10.42 to cover health care costs
• $5.6 million to cover the annual price adjustment for health care
• $7.8 million to cover costs associated with growth expenses such as food, bedding and clothing.
• $7.2 million to cover costs for 1,000 medium custody private prison beds.