- Associated Press - Monday, May 15, 2017

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A Senate-approved plan to cut prison spending would lead to hundreds of officer layoffs and create unsafe staffing levels in Michigan prisons, the state’s corrections director said Monday.

Heidi Washington lodged her criticism in a briefing with reporters days after a Republican senator suggested that Gov. Rick Snyder's budget proposal favors inmates over schoolkids. The Snyder administration typically has not aggressively pushed back so much in public against spending blueprints passed by the GOP-led Legislature.

“We would have many, many staff that would be losing their jobs. We would be operating our facilities in a manner that I don’t think is safe. And our ability to deliver the programs that ultimately get us to the point of closing a prison, our ability to do that, would be severely diminished - if not lost,” Washington said.

Sen. John Proos, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Corrections Subcommittee, said last week that Snyder is proposing a “dramatic spike” in spending on a per-prisoner basis. Spending on prison facilities, which accounts for half of the Corrections Department’s $2 billion annual budget, will total $1.09 billion this fiscal year and would grow by about 1 percent to nearly $1.1 billion in the next fiscal year, he said.

Proos estimated that the inmate population will fall by nearly 2,000, which would equal a per-prisoner spending boost of $1,440, according to his calculations. The Senate corrections budget would spend $28.3 million less than in the current fiscal year and $40 million less than what the Republican suggested.

“Those dollars would be better put to use in our classrooms, on our roads or in the pocketbooks of Michigan taxpayers - not on empty prison beds and buildings,” said Proos, a St. Joseph Republican.

But corrections officials say inmate numbers will not decline enough to allow the state to close another prison after one already was shut last September, and across-the-board cuts at Michigan’s 30 prisons would be detrimental. They accuse Proos of using population estimates that do not factor in the closure of the Pugsley Correctional Facility and argue that they have kept the overall corrections budget at $2 billion for years despite wage increases and other rising expenses.

“We just closed 1,300 beds and saved the taxpayers $21 million,” Washington said. “We’re not afraid to do that when the time is right.”

The Senate plan would eliminate 363 jobs at a time guards are retiring, according to the Corrections Department. Snyder has proposed spending more than $4 million to train 177 new corrections officers to address higher-than-expected attrition, but senators rejected the funding.

Michigan’s prisoner population fell by about 1,500, to 41,122 in 2016, which was the lowest level in nearly 20 years. It is projected to decline by another 800 in 2017, according to the state.

The House corrections spending plan is more in line with Snyder‘s. He and legislators will work to resolve their differences in coming weeks, as they try to finish the next budget in early June, four months before it would take effect.

Washington also criticized a Senate provision that would spend nearly $4.4 million to help buy a new prison, which Proos has said would be the GEO Group’s privately owned North Lake Correctional Facility near Baldwin or the closed state prison in Standish. Proos has said it could make sense to use a newer prison instead of spending to upgrade aging ones, while Washington disagreed.

“If we went to the GEO facility,” she said, “we would have to close two of our facilities.”

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/David%20Eggert

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