Nevada needs to build $1.91 billion in new prisons in the next eight years and fund huge increases in staff and programs to keep pace with growth in the inmate population. A population that has grown double the best available projections for several years.
"Nevada is burning the correctional candle at both ends," Director Glen Whorton told the legislative money committees Tuesday.
He said the percentage of violent offenders is increasing along with the percentage of drug offenders. He said the women's population grew at more than 18 percent last year alone. At the same time, he said, program funding from the federal government has been all but eliminated and the inmate-to-staff ratio is increasing to dangerous levels.
Without major changes, Whorton and nationally known consultant James Austin said the state will have to put huge amounts of money into the prison system just to keep even and fend off potential legal challenges that could result in federal courts mandating changes.
And Austin said it's not just because of Nevada's population growth.
"It's also because of the laws you all have passed," he said. "There are laws you have passed that send people to prison for longer periods of time. It's a policy decision you have made."
Whorton said the prison population has increased from 11,700 inmates to more than 13,000 in the past year with no end in sight.
He said overcrowding is so bad some 70 women inmates are now being housed in the women's prison's program areas and more are in one unit of the men's Southern Desert Correctional Center. He said male inmates are now bunked in the gymnasiums of some prisons to handle overflow and that the maximum security prison in Ely is installing double bunks in some cell units.
Whorton said that's why his proposed budget for the coming two years alone asks for more than $258 million in construction plus a 23 percent increase in his total budget that includes adding 353 more guards and support staff. That will bring the total two-year prison budget to nearly $635 million - almost $120 million more than the current budget.
The proposed construction budget includes doubling the size of the women's prison to more than 800 beds, adding 560 beds at High Desert men's prison in Southern Nevada, building new conservation camps for minimum custody inmates in Indian Springs and at Stewart in Carson City and planning four major projects for 2009-11. When repair and maintenance projects are added in, the total capital improvement package this biennium tops $300 million.
For the years leading to 2015, the list includes three more major prisons each costing some $300 million, added housing units to several existing prisons and at least two more conservation camps at upward of $60 million apiece. Altogether, the tab comes to $1.9 billion - and that's before inflation.
Whorton and Austin told the assembled members of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees in the short term, they have little choice but to build more prisons and add staff.
Austin said the biggest changes the state could make would be finding ways to reduce the percentage of convicted felons who fail probation and wind up in prison. He said some 40 percent fail currently.
"If you can affect the probation system, you would have tremendous reductions in outlays for prison beds," he said.
"If you're going to affect prison populations, you have to stop them coming through the front door," Whorton said, driving home the point.
Asked about parole, Austin said Nevada actually has a good parole rate. He and department programs director Dorothy Nash, however, said Nevada has a long way to go in improving programs that can help inmates become productive and stay out once they are released.
Whorton agreed saying, "we do not have a modern level of programs."
Nash told lawmakers the Casa Grande re-entry program in Southern Nevada has been very successful at getting inmates through drug and alcohol programs, getting them their GEDs, driver's licenses and other necessary papers, and finding more than 90 percent of them jobs. She said 69 percent of those released so far have remained clean, employed and out of prison.
But she said the state needs to put more money into those programs and to expand them statewide.
Austin urged lawmakers to find ways of getting more low-risk inmates out of prison instead of giving longer and longer sentences.
He said the core inmate population is a small number of very dangerous people.
"There are a large number of people in any prison system that are low risk," he said. "You could release them today and there would be no impact on society, but you can't because of the laws."
And he suggested lawmakers consider moving the state's Division of Parole and Probation out of Public Safety and putting it together with the Department of Corrections, which he said is how most states organize the corrections system.
He said that would eliminate some of the missed and disjointed communication between the two and help fix some of the problems he believes may be keeping some inmates who could be safely released behind bars.
The testimony came on the first day of the budget overview for the Legislature.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.
So you know
The review of the Nevada budget continues today with the Department of Health and Human Services. Hearings for other agencies will continue into next week.
By the numbers
Prisons budget request for next two years:
+$300 million - construction, maintenance and planning
$335 million - 353 more guards
$635 million total for two-years ($120 million more than current budget)
Budget needs through 2015 (not including inflation)
$900 million - three more prisons
$245 million - expanded housing units
$120 million - two conservation camps
$1.9 billion (not including inflation)
Population growth in the last year
11,700 to 13,000
What can be done
• Reduce the percentage of convicted felons who fail probation and wind up in prison
• Move the state's Division of Parole and Probation out of Public Safety and put it with the Department of Corrections,
• Expand drug alcohol and education programs
• Change laws to release low-risk offenders