State prison officials said cuts would have dire results. The legislator proposing them scoffed at such talk.
Top state corrections officials warned Wednesday that they would have to release more felons early, slash inmate education classes and perhaps close a juvenile facility in Red Wing that holds some of the state's most dangerous young offenders if the Legislature passes budget cuts proposed by key committees.
In addition, they said, more than 180 corrections employees -- excluding front-line prison officers -- would lose their jobs over the next two years under a separate bill cutting the state workforce. Dire rhetoric is normal at this stage of the Legislature's budget talks, but the agency's warning reflects a bitter debate at the Capitol over maintaining public safety while making deep cuts in a corrections budget that Republicans consider bloated.
"We will be left with untenable choices that will include either the early release of prisoners or closing a facility,'' Commissioner Tom Roy wrote in a letter to lawmakers. He was particularly critical of legislators' failure to seek official fiscal analyses before proposing ambitious savings targets.
House Public Safety Chairman Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, made no apologies for proposing $26 million in corrections cuts, and accused agency officials of engaging in scare tactics.
"What do we have to do?'' he said in an interview. "Take needle-nose pliers and lead them around by the nose?''
In an unusual twist, however, corrections officials note that their predecessors -- under a Republican administration -- raised precisely the same cautions two years ago, when a DFL-controlled Legislature proposed budget cuts.
A disturbing videotape, shown on orders of then-Commissioner Joan Fabian, contains scenes of violent attacks on corrections officers and inmates that were recorded by surveillance cameras.
Corrections officials say the irony is not lost on them today. "It can be very ugly,'' Assistant Commissioner David Crist said when asked how Minnesota's prison system would appear under the proposed cuts.
"The purpose of that video was to show legislators that bad things happen in prison, and we want to limit it. Recidivism will go up, public safety will be diminished and corrections costs will go up in the long run,'' he said.
A House-Senate public safety committee is expected to meet next week to negotiate final cuts.
Roy's staff noted that Minnesota already ranks 49th among the states in general-fund spending on corrections. They say that since 2002, more than $109 million has been cut from corrections operations, even while the state's prison population rose from 6,946 to 9,650.
Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed a $4 million cut to the department's budget, but would continue to fund chemical-dependency treatment programs.
Crist warned that short-term budget cuts would have unintended consequences. Chemical dependency programs, long recognized as a way to lower recidivism rates, would be completely eliminated, for example, under the House and Senate bills, and there would also be cuts to inmate health care and vocational training.
"Funding cuts in programs delete constructive jobs for inmates,'' Crist said. "Idle inmates fill the boredom with misconduct.''
But Cornish, who has more than 36 years of experience in law enforcement, is blunt about his expectations and says there is still fat in the agency's budget.
Calling Minnesota's correctional facilities "colleges for crimes,'' Cornish said low-level offenders -- such as drug dealers, thieves and burglars - should be eligible for expanded early release into community corrections programs.
Yet even those prisoners often have long criminal records -- an average of seven convictions, including three felonies -- that indicate they'd be likely to re-offend unless they receive vocational or high school education, Crist said.
Cornish said he also wants Minnesota to deport offenders who are illegal immigrants and, to contain prison medical costs, release more elderly inmates. He said there is a "load'' of geriatric offenders who could be "jettisoned -- let them go early.''
Currently, the state has 237 prisoners over age 60, including three who are over 80. But conditional medical releases are rare: about four to five offenders in the past two years.
Crist said it has become "nearly impossible'' to place offenders in skilled nursing facilities because families of other residents fear their relatives would be endangered.
"It's hard to find a nursing home that will allow a felon next to grandma and grandpa,'' he warned. "That's not going to save tens of thousands of dollars.''
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745
49th Minnesota's incarceration rate (national rank) and corrections spending (national rank).
9,650 Adult inmates in Minnesota
22,212 Adult inmates in Wisconsin
$465 million Minnesota's 2011 corrections budget
$1.279 billion Wisconsin's 2011 corrections budget