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Over the past nine months, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole gave early releases to dozens of women to ease crowding at the Utah State Prison.

In July, the number of women released from prison nearly doubled compared to previous months and many of those inmates — 21 of 74 women — were released after "special attention reviews" requested by the Utah Department of Corrections.

The board typically averages a handful of such requests a month, usually to reconsider releasing an inmate after he or she completes treatment or when the department recommends early release because of an inmate's good behavior. But the number tripled at the beginning of the yearand has remained high nearly every month since.

This July the number of women who received special attention reviews by the board increased 600 percent compared to July 2012, when just three women were released after such a review.

"Corrections coordinated with the Board of Pardons and Parole on the population growth issues it had been experiencing and the board took a closer look at some of the females' parole dates to see if it could help alleviate some of the pressures on bed space," said Steve Gehrke, corrections spokesman.

By statute, prison officials must notify the governor and Board of Pardons whenever 96.5 percent of beds — the point at which it is considered to have reached "operational capacity" — are filled for at least 45 consecutive days. An "emergency release" provision kicks in when 98 percent of beds are occupied for that length of time and requires the department to let the board know how many inmates must be released to get back to operational capacity.

The female inmate population began to bump against capacity in January. In May and June, all 671 beds for female inmates was filled. This summer, the department eased the crunch by contracting for more beds at county jails and speeding up releases. There were 689 female inmates in June; on Friday, that number was down to 662.

All of the women released were nonviolent offenders who were within days or weeks of being paroled or completing their sentences, said Jim Hatch, board spokesman.

"A lot of these people who received a two or three week time cut were terminations, not just paroles," Hatch said.

This is not the first time the board and department have worked together as a "relief valve" to ease overcrowding at the prison. In 2001, the board released about 400 maleinmates up to nine months early because of a budget shortfall. Two years later, corrections officials transferred custody of several hundred inmates who were undocumented to U.S. immigration officials to reduce the prison population. And in 2004, Utah also struggled to accommodate its growing population of female offenders.

Other states also rely on early releases to reduce inmate populations. California is under a federal court order to release 10,000 inmates by the end of year because of overcrowding. Both Alabama and Illinois implemented released programs this year to reduce inmate populations.

In Utah, officials have attributed the increased female inmate population to low tolerance for probation and parole violations and a trend toward requiring inmates to serve out their sentences. The problem has prompted the department to take a system-wide look at how it deals with female inmates, Gehrke said.

Solutions being debated include placing more inmates in halfway houses or under community supervision through Adult Probation and Parole.

"Doing so reduces costs and begins the offender's transition earlier, while still providing supervision and holding them accountable," Gehrke said. "The solution to the population pressures experienced at the prison can't simply be to build more facilities. It needs to be a systemic look to see if there are ways to evolve and shift existing resources toward a rehabilitation method that better implements evidence-based practices and considers the most effective way to not only get offenders out of prison — but also not to have them return."

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Prison Relocation Board moving ahead

The Prison Relocation Authority Committee agreed this week to move on two tracks as it weighs the merits of moving the Utah State Prison from its current location in Draper.

It will continue to evaluate Corrections' current operations, but also expects to have draft versions of bid proposals ready for review by its September 16 meeting.

The committee assigned five members to draft one or more requests for proposals after hearing a "terrific" presentation from the Utah Department of Corrections about its current facilities and operations that could be improved with a new state-of-the-art facility.

"The Department of Corrections has put a fine point today on the extreme opportunity we have ... to help [inmates] get back into the community they come from," said Rep. Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville. "What a tremendous opportunity we have to push the reset button and look at this in a different way."

Wilson added that he has been "frustrated" by the way the project has been characterized.

"There's been an assumption that this was all about freeing up 700 acres in Draper and that is not the case. That's never been the case," he said.

However, the job creation and redevelopment potential of the current prison property was heavily emphasized when lawmakers voted earlier this year to move forward with seeking bids to relocate the facility, which was described as sitting in the "belly button" of the state's thriving high tech corridor.

In their presentation, prison officials told the committee corrections was in need of a "systemwide evaluation" that included a look at both how inmates' needs are being met and what happens to offenders once they are back in their communities.

"We're really at a crossroads here where we can look at possibly moving the prison to a new location but also re-engineering completely the way we do our criminal justice system in the state," said Mike Haddon, deputy director.

Members of the subcommittee tasked with drafting the bid request documents are: Lane Summerhays, chairman of the committee; Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams; Draper Mayor Darrell Smith; Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns; and Camille Anthony, associate director at the Center for Homeland Defense & Security and a pro tempore member of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

The committee also appointed Wilson, Smith and David Luna, a president of Mortgage Educators and Compliance, to solicit a real estate firm to appraise the 700 acres the prison currently occupies in Draper and an environmental firm to conduct an assessment of the property.

— Brooke Adams