Thu, Jan. 23

Reduction in crime puts prison expansion plans on hold

PHOENIX -- Saying crime rates are dropping, the state Department of Corrections on Thursday cancelled plans to contract for 5,000 new private prison beds.

Agency director Charles Ryan said the plans, first approved in 2009, came at a time when the number of people being locked up was increasing. Based on that, he said, the department came up with some projections of what it would need long term.

But the big increase never materialized.

In fact, during the 12 months ending on June 30, 2010, total prison population increased by just 65. And in the last budget year, the tally actually slipped by 296.

Ryan said that made it "prudent to reassess' the plans and its forecast that it would need 8,500 new beds by 2017.

But Ryan said his agency still believes more beds will be necessary. So it is now asking private companies to submit bids for just 2,000 minimum and medium security beds, to be completed something before the middle of 2014.

And the department will ask the Legislature for permission to build a new maximum security unit, to be operated by the state beginning the following year, which can house up to 500 inmates.

The decision to start a new bid process also likely undercuts any new legal effort to block the state from awarding a contract to a private firm to house inmates.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this year, the American Friends Service Committee said a 1987 state law requires that agency to first conduct a study to determine if a private firm can provide at least the same quality as the state at a lower cost. Factors that must be studied range from security and inmate programs to health services and food services.

The state had never completed such a study. But a trial judge refused to block the state from awarding a contract to the five firms which had previously submitted bids.

Now, with that study completed just this week and those original bids discarded, the state is free to start the bidding process all over again without that legal impediment.

A report prepared by the Department of Corrections shows that the number of people committed to the agency for most types of crimes last fiscal year is dropping.

For example, there were 681 fewer people sentenced to prison for drug offenses last year compared with just the prior year. And that 2010 figure was 281 below the year before that.

Even violent crime admissions are down.

The agency also reports a 36 percent decline over two years in the number of illegal immigrants who have committed state crimes are showing up at their doors.

The issue of having inmates in privately run prisons remains controversial, especially after the escape last year of three violent prisoners from a facility in Kingman. They were all recaptured, but not before one of them and an accomplice was linked to the murder of a couple in New Mexico.

A study following the escape found significant flaws in security.

Arizona currently has about 6,400 inmates out of more than 40,000 committed to it in privately operated facilities.

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