GOP legislator pushes bill to relieve prison crowding

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX (AP) -- A Republican state senator is pushing a bill to release thousands of non-violent inmates early in a bid to save money and ease pressure on crowded prisons.

Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, said the legislation would expand an existing Department of Corrections program to help prisoners transition into daily life with services including counseling, case management and substance-abuse treatment.

The bill comes at a time when Gov. Doug Ducey's executive budget calls for $40 million for a new prison with 3,000 beds. Pierce said the size of the project could cost $70 million per year.

Arizona housed more than 42,000 inmates last year, and the Department of Corrections expects to add nearly 1,000 prisoners per year through 2016.

During that time, the Department of Corrections released 943 inmates through its three-month transition program and saved nearly $1 million, according to an annual report by the agency.

Senate Bill 1390 seeks to increase the number of inmates placed in the program to a minimum of 3,500 prisoners in the first year, and 5,000 in the second year. The program would serve low-risk, non-violent offenders and exclude those convicted of driving under the influence, sex offenses, arson or domestic violence.

Pierce said his bill would save the state money and avoid having to build another prison.

"We are spending an awful lot of money putting people and keeping people in jail that are non-violent criminals," he said. "I think more people need to be in treatment than in jail."

The program has already proven to reduce the rate of return offenders compared with the general population, Pierce said.

When asked if the bill would provide a cost-effective alternative to building a new prison, the governor's office said it had not yet reviewed the legislation. Corrections Department spokesman Doug Nick said the agency is aware of the legislation and monitoring it as the bill moves through the Legislature, but did not provide further comment.

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