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Counties try to derail plan to shift prisoners

County officials don’t like either Door No. 1 or Door No. 2 when confronted with the approaching 2012 implementation of an Arizona law that would shift costs for housing thousands of prisoners from the state to the 15 counties.

The law will require counties to choose between keeping all felons sentenced to a year or less behind bars or paying the state Department of Corrections to take them. The number of inmates sentenced to terms of that length tops 4,500 annually but fewer than that would be behind bars at any one time.

The shift was included in budget legislation approved last spring, and county officials are trying to head off its implementation by making repeal a top priority for the upcoming legislative session that begins in January.

At stake are tens of millions of dollars for costs to be shifted from the state to the counties, amid unanswered questions about how to implement the change, officials said.

First proposed in Arizona by former Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Arizona shift would be a smaller version of one already being implemented by California to relieve crowding in that state’s prison system and help close a budget shortfall.

The Arizona prisoner shift would begin July 1 but counties face a key deadline well before then. Under the law to implement the shift, each county must tell the state by Feb. 1 if the county wants to pay the state about $60 a day per prisoner to still accept a county’s newly sentenced inmates instead of sending them to the state starting July 1. And current prisoners already serving terms of a year or less would stay in the state prison, but counties would have to pay the state for them beginning July 1.

By March 1, the Department of Corrections is supposed to tell the Legislature whether the shift will allow the department to close any prisons.

Estimates on potential cost savings to the state have ranged from $35 million to $60 million annually, but county officials question whether the state would actually see those savings, particularly if whole prisons can’t be closed.

They also said the counties’ additional costs to house the prisoners in jails around the state would be higher than the state’s savings. That’s because individual counties now don’t now provide some services and amenities that prisons provide inmates and that lawsuits could result, officials said.

“There’s a question about whether or not they’re considered state inmates because they’ve been convicted of state crimes,” said Nicole Stickler, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties.

And some counties’ jails can’t accommodate large numbers of transferred prisoners without adding space or staff, officials said.

“We have some room, but we would have to add other (jail) officers. We don’t have the money to do that,” said Yuma County Supervisor Lenore Stuart.

The counties on Thursday gained a powerful ally on their stance when Gov. Jan Brewer announced she wants to scrap the shift. Brewer said the state’s finances are improving and that she wants to relieve the counties of some of the burdens placed on them by the state’s recent budget-balancing efforts.

But the plan is already written into state law and the Legislature would have to agree to repeal it, said Pinal County Supervisor Pete Rios, a former legislator.

Two senators who play key roles on budget matters did not return calls for comment on the possibility of repeal. Those included Senate Appropriations Chairman Don Shooter, R-Yuma, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert.

Shooter’s predecessor as Appropriations chairman, Biggs was an architect of the Senate Republican plan that included a version of the shift that would have taken effect in mid-2011.

However, House Appropriations Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said shifting the prisoner costs to the counties makes sense because the prison system is crowded and the state’s finances remain shaky.

“I think we’re in worse financial shape,” he said.

Also, the shift would be good policy because inmates sentenced to relatively short terms would be incarcerated near their homes.

“You don’t take somebody who is sentenced to less than a year and send them to a prison on the other side of the state and separate them from their families,” Kavanagh said, who teaches criminal justice at Scottsdale Community College.

Kavanagh said the short-term prisoners who would be shifted to counties include misdemeanor offenders, but Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux and a lawyer for a statewide prosecutors group said the department only houses felons.

“They’re all felons,” attorney Kim MacEachern of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council said of the inmates who would be shifted to counties.

A top staff official of the County Supervisors Association of Arizona said the counties are studying implementation details of the prisoner shift but are focused on repeal.

“The consequences of this are so damaging,” said association Executive Director Craig Sullivan. “If we get to the point where the state is insisting this occur and not appreciating the consequences of it, we’ll have to have a discussion of how that will happen at that time.”

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