Originally created 10/06/04

Prison officials warn against cuts



ATLANTA - State corrections officials warned a legislative panel Tuesday that additional budget cuts to Georgia's crowded and financially-strapped prison system could jeopardize public safety - but they stopped short of saying a large-scale release of inmates would be necessary.

"We are secure right now, but I am not sure I can stand up here and say that to you later on if we undergo other cuts," Corrections Commissioner James McDonald said, addressing roughly a dozen state House members during a sometimes-testy hearing at the Capitol.

"The status quo is not an option," Mr. McDonald added.

The lawmakers called the hearing to ask questions about the budget plan submitted last month by corrections officials to Gov. Sonny Perdue. The spending blueprint contains three scenarios, requested by Mr. Perdue as Georgia continues to recover from several years of low tax collections and stagnant economic activity. The scenarios detail how the agency would operate with a 5 percent increase in state funding, with no change at all, and with a 3 percent reduction.

The governor asked all state agencies to turn in similar budget proposals as he prepares his own state spending plan for submission to the Legislature later this winter.

At Tuesday's hearing, lawmakers pressed corrections officials to explain what would happen under the 3 percent reduction plan, referred to by many as the "worse-case scenario."

Rep. Mike Snow, D-Chickamauga, repeatedly asked Parole Board Chairman Milton E. "Buddy" Nix Jr. whether the cuts would require the release of nonviolent inmates who haven't finished serving their sentences.

Mr. Nix first responded by saying: "We need more parole officers out there."

Mr. Snow, frustrated, restated his politically-loaded question several more times, eliciting similar responses from Mr. Nix.

Georgia's corrections budget of $882 million is roughly the same level the agency received in 2001, when there were 7,000 fewer inmates.

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 681-1701 or brian.basinger@morris.com.