SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah State Prison could begin releasing inmates as early as March, if the current budget stays in place.
"We feel like this group completely understands the crisis we're faced with," said Tom Patterson, executive director of the Department of Corrections.
He spoke Wednesday to the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. The committee has to make decisions on which departments or programs will get any additional funding if the state's revenues are higher than expected. Those numbers are expected to be announced by the end of the month.
The Department of Corrections' base budget for 2011-2012 is $16 million less than the previous year.
As of Feb. 1, the prison population was 6,850, according to a report by the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.
The facilities have a maximum capacity of 6,900, which it "is now quickly approaching," the report states.
By law, a state prison facility can exceed maximum capacity for only 45 days and then it has to start emergency releases, Patterson said.
Patterson said if the prison population exceeds its maximum capacity, prison officials have cots, gyms and facilities available in the event they need to add more prisoners without more funding.
"Our security will be outfitted with stab vests," Patterson said. "Please if you can help, help because this is a crock pot for disaster."
Patterson said the $16 million cut would mean the state would have to release 800 prisoners, plus lay off 175 correction officers.
The recent budget reduction eliminates funding for a unit in Gunnison and eliminates funding for contracts with the 21 county jails that house state prisoners, according to the report.
"Those (county jail) beds are critical to our growth and critical to our present situation," Patterson said.
Gov. Gary Herbert recommended a $4.9 million increase in his budget for jail contracting.
Patterson said that would get the prison through this fiscal year and the following fiscal year.
"We're expecting an additional 120 new male inmates," Patterson said.
As it is now, as one inmate is released, another inmate enters the prison.
When inmates are released, they usually are placed on parole. Board of Pardons Chairman Clark Harms said if the prison has to release people, it will be the board that will decide who gets out.
And the board is itself facing a budget cut of $1 million to $2 million.
"And if you cut, we lose the ability to do hearings," Harms said.
If hearings are not held, then "we've lost the capacity to make decisions, like who is the least objectionable person to let out," Harms said.
Once the person is back in the community, they have to report to a parole officer.
With more inmates released, the workload for parole officers will increase by 5 percent, Harms said.