Forced Release of Inmates Causing Public Safety Concerns

Forced Release of Inmates Causing Public Safety Concerns

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News Specialist Jill Atwood reportingThe budget crisis in Utah is translating into a possible crisis in public safety. It's because the state corrections department is being forced to consider early release for prison inmates.

And, despite efforts by the department to paint the early release programs as a minimal risk to society, there is mounting evidence to the contrary.

Nearly every day, prison officials have to make tough calls on who gets paroled and who doesn't. But now, because of more and more budget cutting, the choices get harder, and they are forced to release even more.

Tonight, even those making the decisions admit they're worried about letting inmates loose before they're ready.

Here's a chilling thought: the State Board of Pardons may have to sort out 400 of the prison's so-called best of the worst, and let them go early.

Chairman of the Board Mike Sibbett doesn't like the assignment, but he's done it before and he'll do it again if legislators force his hand.

"Do we expand the pool to lower class sex offenders and trust that pool of individuals or those that have third-degree assault convictions?" Sibbett asks.

The idea with early release is to choose from low-risk offenders -- for example, those in for drugs or property crimes who have been model inmates and are considered the least likely to commit a new crime.

In June of 2001, 237 inmates were released based on that criteria.

Now, almost two years later, the parole board finds itself in a similar situation, which begs the obvious question, how did our original group do? Were they successful or did some again pose a threat to society?

Almost two weeks ago Mike Sibbett was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune saying to his knowledge that none of the inmates released had committed violent crimes.

But since that time, Eyewitness News has discovered that's not the case. When brought to his attention, Sibbett admitted he may have been misunderstood.

He says what he meant is that none of the 237 had committed murder.

None HAVE committed murder. That's the good news. But here's the not-so-good news.

In all, 51 of the 237 did commit new crimes, and 37 of those were felonies.

Sibbett is the first to admit, there are no guarantees when you let convicted felons free early, especially before they've had a chance to go through rehabilitation programs.

He's hoping legislators will be listening and willing to learn from past mistakes.

"There is absolutely no way that you can predict when a drug offender is going to become a sex offender, when a property offender is going to become a murderer."

Chairman Sibbett says there are only about 130 inmates he would be comfortable paroling early. That's a far cry from 400.

He says he looks forward to the next 45 days of debate on Capitol Hill. He's convinced that lawmakers will do the right thing.

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