Gov. Jim Hunt is all but certain to call North Carolina's legislature into special session early next year to deal with prison overcrowding, state officials said last week.

The session will focus on finding room for 3,000 additional prisoners through a combination of emergency new construction, reconfiguration of existing jails, and purchase of space in out-of-state prisons, said the officials, who declined to be identified.

Pressure on the governor to call for a session on crime has been mounting since North Carolina recently surpassed its self-imposed limit of 21,400 prisoners. Given that situation, the state faces mandatory release of up to 3,800 prisoners by March 15.

Initial capital costs to deal with the jail crisis could run about $10 million, with additional expenses totaling more than $50 million, the officials said.

Hunt's deputy press secretary, Leslie Bony, said the governor is "moving in the direction" of calling a special session, but would probably not make a final decision until mid-January. Bony said the shape of a session, if it does occur, will be determined in consultation with legislative leaders. The North Carolina General Assembly's 1994 regular session, scheduled to last a month, does not begin until May.

Jail funding sought at a special session would add to bond proceeds from a $87.5 million general obligation issue sold in October to help finance construction of 8,000 prison beds already planned by the state.

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