Overcrowding could force Arizona's prisons to shut their doors to new inmates this summer, corrections authorities said Thursday.
Last month, the state set a record for monthly inmate growth when 481 convicted defendants were bused into prisons. The previous record was 321 in April 1998.
"What we are faced with is a crisis in corrections. The level of overcrowding today is the highest level of overcrowding in the history of the agency," said Charles Ryan, acting director of the state Department of Corrections. "This prison system will probably be completely out of space by August or September."
When that happens, Ryan said he will have to go to Gov. Janet Napolitano to declare an emergency, then get authorization and funding from the Legislature to send inmates out of state. The state's prison system, which has 26,578 designated beds, is over capacity by 4,200 inmates.
In the meantime, the Department of Corrections is double-bunking in some units and is erecting tents at its Perryville complex in Goodyear. The department has plans for more tents at prisons in Tucson, Douglas and Yuma to handle the surge of inmates.
The alert comes as state lawmakers consider eliminating 163 probation positions next fiscal year to help overcome a possible $1 billion budget deficit. The reduction would save the state about $6.4 million, but criminal justice officials said prisons will pay the price.
A shortage of probation officers means fewer spots for defendants who would be good candidates for probation, and for probation violators. Instead, judges will have to send more of these offenders to prisons, a phenomenon already occurring, said Arizona Supreme Court Justice Charles Jones.
"The fewer probation officers we have, the more predictable it will be that defendants will simply be sent back to prison because you have nowhere else to send them," Jones said. "That's exactly what's happening."
From February to April, the Department of Corrections found that 38 percent of offenders arriving for incarceration were probation violators, a group that would often return to a more restrictive program of intensive probation. Today, though, there is no space in intensive probation, county officials said.
This year, the state cut funding to the state Supreme Court, which had to eliminate 191 probation positions, said Jones. The court also capped the number of slots available for defendants in standard and intensive probation, which forced probation departments to end supervision for hundreds of low-level offenders.
The cap also left no room for mistakes by probationers. Violations have almost guaranteed probation revocation and prison time, said Barbara Broderick, the county's chief probation officer. Since January, the department has seen an increasing number of probation revocations for violators each month, she said. In January, 338 probation violators were kicked out of the program and faced prison time.
"I'm not prepared to say the proliferation of offenders is because of the lack of probation officers. Currently, that is one consideration," said Rep. Phil Hanson, R-Peoria and chairman of the joint select committee on corrections.
Corrections officials agreed that other factors are contributing to prison overcrowding. Tougher prosecutorial policies, including one implemented last year that requires prison time if the offender has two prior felony convictions, have raised the rate of incarceration, Ryan said. The prison system also has seen greater numbers of sex offenders and property offenders this year.
But the consequences of scaling down probation programs cannot be ignored, criminal justice authorities said.
"The only thing I can think of that we changed public policy-wise is a decrease in probation officers," Broderick said. "There is a direct correlation."
That correlation, however, is not on the radar screen of lawmakers tasked with cutting millions of dollars from the state budget, Jones said. In the past 18 months, $16.5 million has been cut from the Supreme Court.
"By cutting probation, there's an immediate short-term savings, but the consequences have been either overlooked or ignored by House and Senate leadership," Jones said. The chief justice said he is hoping that Napolitano's budget, which would not result in probation cuts, is approved.
There are no easy answers, especially during a year when there is no money to spend, and especially for a corrections department facing complicated issues, said Hanson
"It really is true there is an overcrowding situation right now and it's not going to get any better in the foreseeable future," he said. "I wish I had some solutions, but I don't."