State lawmakers quickly objected Wednesday to plans by Gov. Janet Napolitano to ease a prison overcrowding crisis by spending $470 million for new cells over the next five years.
Napolitano had warned the Legislature in May she would seek additional prison operating money in a special session, slated to start Oct. 20. The state has scrambled for most of the year to find temporary housing for about 4,000 inmates because there aren’t enough permanent cells.
But the governor went far beyond what lawmakers expected Wednesday, announcing the state should add 9,134 prison beds to keep pace with the rapidly increasing inmate population.
"Assuming that some of the other steps we take work, like some efforts to reduce recidivism, we’re not committed to actually build those beds," Napolitano said. "But we want the authority to begin the planning process."
Several key lawmakers said the Legislature should consider a significant expansion only after finding ways to slow the rate at which some criminals are sent to prison.
Rep. Bill Konopnicki, RSafford, has been leading a House review of sentencing alternatives since the regular session ended in June.
"I don’t think we can just look in the short term and commit to building that many beds without analyzing why we need that many beds," Konopnicki said.
Arizona’s prison population has risen significantly since the early 1990s as a result of the state’s overall growth and a series of sentencing reforms that lengthened prison terms. New prisons were constructed as well, but recent building plans were delayed as the state has coped with billion-dollar revenue shortfalls.
Napolitano said Wednesday that overcrowding could rise to 5,200 inmates by Dec. 31 if the Legislature doesn’t act.
Napolitano said she will ask for $26.4 million to be added to a $614 million budget for the state Department of Corrections. The extra money would allow the state to add 400 beds at the Perryville complex in western Maricopa County, to build a joint facility in Florence with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, and to continue jail contracts with other rural counties.
Some of the money also would go toward hiring bonuses and incentive pay to reduce a large turnover rate among prison guards.
The Corrections Department has signed a contract for a new 1,400-bed private prison in Kingman, and had been reviewing bids for a private 3,200-bed women’s prison.
But Napolitano said she plans to scrap the new women’s prison and other, unscheduled buildings in favor of expanding existing prisons. Napolitano’s proposal to finance the construction would cost the state an estimated $753 million over 15 years.
New corrections director Dora Schriro said she is designing the expansions to include more minimumsecurity cells and to use land already owned by the state. Shapiro’s efforts already have removed $86 million from earlier designs, said George Weisz, a governor’s policy advisor on corrections.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, was outraged that Napolitano wants to abandon private prisons after the Kingman facility is built. Pearce, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had worked for more than three years to convince the Corrections Department that alternatives would be less expensive.