Some 4,500 convicts are waiting this week for a spot in a Georgia prison, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution–enough for a small suburb. County sheriffs are complaining about the pinch on their budgets to house thousands of state prisoners. The backlog, hovering at its highest-ever level, is a result of a jump in the numbers sentenced to prison in 2003 and state budget cutting. “I’m a big fan of the governor’s, but trying to cut the state budget by reducing prison beds is just passing that cost on to the local governments,” Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said. He has put 250 mattresses on floors to cram three inmates in cells designed for two. Ten percent of the inmates in Conway’s jail are state prisoners. Other counties put the percentage between 43 and 52 percent.
The state reimburses counties $20 a day for holding a state prisoner, but that doesn’t start until 15 days after the Corrections Department receives legal paperwork on the prisoner’s conviction. Of the 246 state prisoners in the Gwinnett jail on one recent mid-December day, Conway said, he was getting no reimbursement for 165 whose paperwork was pending. The Corrections Department supports efforts in the General Assembly to raise county compensation.
The state did not seek funds open about 2,100 beds at probation facilities under construction. The money wouldn’t fit in the $847 million budget mandated by Gov. Sonny Perdue — down from $968 million two years before. Last year, the state shut down a 138-bed prison and two smaller transition or diversion centers. Prison capacity reflects a boom in construction from 1998 to 2002, when 8,000 beds were added. As of Dec. 26, 56,800 offenders were supposed to be in prison. Projections show that over the next five years the state could be short 10,000 beds.