Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Prison Budget Causes Worries; System Makes Do, but Future Bleak

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Prison Budget Causes Worries; System Makes Do, but Future Bleak

Article excerpt

Byline: Doug Gross, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- In Georgia, more than 200,000 people either are in the custody of the Department of Corrections or under its supervision.

The state has led the nation in prison population growth for three of the past four years and now incarcerates more inmates -- about 47,000 -- than there are students enrolled in the University of Georgia, Georgia Southern University and Medical College of Georgia combined.

But despite its constant growth, which is only predicted to swell more thanks in part to Georgia's tough "two strikes, you're out" law for violent felons, the state's prison system had its budget slashed by millions of dollars by the General Assembly this year.

The result? Closed facilities. Delayed plans for new prisons. And belt-tightening that has included laying off chaplains, librarians and counselors and deleting more than 500 currently vacant jobs.

Prison officials say they'll be able to soldier on despite the cuts -- at least for now. But some advocates fear the cuts could lead to a more dangerous life for inmates, guards and, ultimately, regular citizens.

About $30 million was cut from this year's original budget of $957 million, as lawmakers struggled to make up for a nearly $700 million state deficit brought on by dwindling tax receipts.

The system's 2004 budget is $916 million, $41 million less than this year's.

That's roughly the same as 2001 when the system incarcerated 2,000 fewer inmates than it does now.

" 'Cut. Cut. Cut' is what we hear," acting assistant commissioner Alan Adams said. "But one thing we are not going to cut is the margin of safety, for the offenders and the staff."

But officials admit that prison crowding is becoming a concern.

Nearly 98 percent of Georgia's prison beds are full, with about 1,000 new inmates expected in the next year.

"We think we're in pretty good shape for about a year," said Brian Owens, executive assistant to the commissioner. "[But] after a year, that might be a different story.

"The bottom line is that we're going to have to start building new prisons in this state or doing something new with sentencing. …

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