PAROLE THE ELDERLY
----- Original Message -----
From: Judy Greenspan
Criminal Justice and the California Deficit
Parole the elderly
The SF Chronicle
Sunday Feb 9, 03
by Vince Beiser
Amid the intensifying battle in Sacramento over California's budget deficit, Gov. Gray Davis is coming under fire for his proposal to cut funds for schools and health care while boosting spending on prisons. Davis says preserving public safety requires no less.
But there's at least one safe, simple and immediate thing the state could do that would save millions: parole inmates who are too old to be dangerous.
Inmates are expensive, and none more so than elderly ones. The average prisoner costs California taxpayers more than $26,000 a year. But elderly inmates typically cost up to three times more, primarily because of their greater medical needs. Many older prisoners are five to 10 years "older" physiologically than chronologically, their bodies prematurely worn down from years of alcohol and drug abuse and the stress of prison life. According to the Washington-based Project for Older Prisoners, the average convict over 55 - - considered geriatric among prison experts -- will suffer three chronic illnesses while incarcerated. And taxpayers foot every penny of their medical bills.
That's no small matter in a state where the correctional system has grown to gargantuan proportions. Ten years ago, California incarcerated some 115,000 inmates; today, it holds more than 160,000, at an annual cost exceeding $5 billion.
Health care costs have grown even faster: The Department of Corrections will spend more than $900 million on total medical expenses this year, triple the amount of a decade ago. That's partly because the number of elderly prisoners has also roughly tripled in the last decade, the result of baby-boom demographics and ever-lengthening sentences. California now holds more than 6, 000 prisoners older than 55, many of them already in such dismal health that they couldn't commit new crimes if they wanted to. If you move the bar up to age 70, that still leaves 503 inmates. Paroling just those septuagenarians could save tens of millions of dollars annually.
Of course, not every prisoner over 55 can be safely released. Many have committed serious crimes and are in good enough health that they need to be locked up. But in general, paroling ailing elderly prisoners appears a pretty safe bet. The recidivism rate is less than 2 percent for prisoners over 55, according to federal Bureau of Justice research. And the cost of monitoring a convict on parole is about a tenth that of keeping one in prison. There's a noncash bonus, too: Letting sick, feeble old men and women live out their last days at home with their families is more humane than letting them slowly disintegrate in cellblocks filled with predatory younger inmates.
Several other cash-strapped states are already releasing nonviolent offenders to save money or are considering doing so, including such law-and- order bastions as Arkansas and Oklahoma. And California, like many states, already has on the books little-used policies allowing for compassionate release of sick or elderly inmates deemed harmless.
Davis, however, has firmly declared his opposition to early release for convicts. That's no surprise, given how beholden he is to the state's powerful prison guards' union, which handed him more than $1 million in campaign contributions last year alone.
But Davis is facing a fight from legislators -- including Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco -- who support the notion of releasing unthreatening inmates. The Senate recently passed a bill that, among other correctional money-saving measures, would allow nonviolent inmates to be paroled one month early and prohibit those convicted of petty theft from being sentenced to prison.
Nobody wants to see dangerous felons let loose just to save money. But letting hundreds of old men and women in poor health go home, under the scrutiny of parole agents, hardly seems like much of a threat. Would we really rather keep old convicts behind bars than keep full funding for kindergartens and hospitals?
Vince Beiser is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes often on prison and criminal justice issues.