Elderly prisoners up 250 percent: Should they be released to save money?

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — Criminal justice reform is enjoying a surge of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill this year.

On Monday, President Obama rolled out a plan focused on “rehabilitation and reintegration for the formerly incarcerated.”

While nonviolent drug sentencing has received the majority of reform coverage, elderly prisoners are emerging as a large group under consideration for federal legislators crafting reform legislation.

Pew Charitable Trusts found that since 1999, elderly prisoners (55 and older) in state and federal facilities grew 250 percent. Their younger counterparts (younger than 55) grew by only 10 percent.

Matt McKillop, who authored Pew’s new paper, found there are two widely agreed upon causes of the phenomenon: “One is the increased use of longer sentences in recent decades, which has kept people in prison for longer periods of time. And the second reason is that people are entering prison at an older age, on average, than in the past.”

That means tens of thousands of prisoners who double as patients fighting dementia, diabetes, hypertension, vision loss and other chronic conditions.

When it comes to dollars and cents, McKillop calculates caring for older prisoners can cost up to three times more than maintaining younger inmates’ health.

House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is accounting for elderly prisoners — and their associated health care costs — as he crafts a constellation of reform-focused bills. He’s joined in the effort by the committee’s ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Goodlatte says his first step is to, “Reduce some of the mandatory minimums at the upper end of the scale” by cutting mandatory life sentences to 25 years, 25 years to 20 years, and so on.

Looking to the future, Goodlatte predicts, “Shortening those prison sentences at the beginning of the process will, over a long period of time, help that reduction.”

Rep. Conyers, the House’s longest-serving member, has worked on sentencing reform for decades and strongly supports efforts to curb mandatory sentences in certain cases.

Next up for the committee, Goodlatte is advancing reform bills aimed at reforming prisons.

In his prison reform bill, the committee chairman says age will not be considered the primary factor for release, “But it will definitely be a consideration that when people are older they are less likely to commit most types of crime, and that can certainly be a part of the rehabilitation process.”

In the end, fewer sick prisoners would mean a lighter fiscal burden.

State and federal prisons are governed by separate laws. As McKillop points out, several states have successfully implemented geriatric and medical parole in certain cases, easing the financial demands on correctional budgets.

Goodlatte hopes similar remedies may work at the federal level — but that comes with a major caveat.

If you’re an elderly criminal, expect to be locked up if the punishment fits the crime. Goodlatte cites the case of Bernie Madoff and white collar criminals, explaining, “If you’re going to use prison sentences to say we want to discourage people from participating in this, you’ve still got to give them a sentence, even if they’re pretty old when they’re convicted in the first place.”

The Goodlatte-Conyers measures are working their way through the House Judiciary Committee this session. Before becoming law, they would also need Senate approval and the president’s signature.

Further information on Pew Charitable Trusts’ long-term study available here.

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