Aging in Prison


Perhaps as a result of Scotland’s decision to release terminally-ill Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi last week, or perhaps as a result of the tense debate surrounding U.S. health care reform, the topic of prisoner medical care is taking on a higher profile.

As the cost of medical services continues to rise, Alabama’s budget stands to suffer greatly in terms of prisoner medical care. This is because Alabama ranks in the top 3 of all states in the nation for number of life sentences imposed.

As AWRN blog readers may remember, Alabama’s sentencing is just part of the disturbing reality, being reported on by the NY Times and others, that an unprecedented number of prisoners are serving life sentences in the United States.

Locking up offenders for life means taking responsibility for their life-long medicalcare. Looking at Alabama’s prison population, one sees that our criminal justice system not only provides medical services to both males and females, but also to youth, middle-aged, and elderly offenders, requiring a range of care at varying costs depending on the illness and treatment, as well as the size of the prisoner population.  Prevention services are also part of prisoner  health care.

Yesterday, the Montgomery Advertiser ran an article on Alabama’s fairly new medical furlough law, “that would allow terminally ill inmates a chance to die at home and, it was hoped, save the state a little money.”  It seems the savings haven’t been there as it is difficult to find facilities or family members who are willing, financially or otherwise, to take in a terminally ill former prisoner. 

Moreover, the Montgomery Advertiser reports that,

The eligibility criteria for the new medical furlough are so strict that it could be a long time before the state Department of Corrections sees significant savings.

When Alabama passed its law last year, it became one of 36 states to provide a medical furlough for incapacitated or terminally ill inmates. Ruth Naglich, associate commissioner on health services for the department, said when the bill was first proposed, 120 of the state’s 25,000 inmates were identified, but that number shrank once the final law was in place.”

So while the medical furlough law is a great step toward mitigating Alabama’s overcrowded prison conditions and budget shortfalls that have been exacerbated by life sentences, it doesn’t get at the problem’s source. The short-sightedness of life prison terms, especially those without parole, must be targeted for being the misguided, socially and financially burdensome sentences that they are.

A 2005 report by Alabama’s Sentencing Commission found that, “Alabama is among 16 states that provide for life imprisonment upon conviction for one prior felony.”

An AP article on the subject reported,

For example, a person with two forgery convictions can be sentenced to life in prison.

 “If you have three nonviolent crimes, you could still get the same sentence as someone who has committed three violent crimes,” said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the prison system.”

Unlike most states, Alabama’s repeat offender law – often known as the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law – does not figure in the length of time between convictions or the severity of prior offenses.
More than half of the nearly 8,600 habitual offenders were given tougher or “enhanced” sentences after their latest conviction was for property or drug crimes, according to the Alabama Sentencing Commission’s preliminary 2006 report. That doesn’t mean they didn’t commit a violent crime in the past; but in most cases the law doesn’t give any weight to the prior offense.

“Alabama does have one of the most stringent habitual felony offender acts,” said Lynda Flynt, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

Tomislav Kovandzic, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said this has created a problem in corrections.

The habitual offender laws in general don’t cut down on crime but do result in prison systems that are “busting at the seams” and increasingly demand larger chunks of state budgets, he said.

The majority of states that have such laws introduced them in the 1980s and 1990s, when the nation adopted a “tough on crime” motto, he said.

“These laws don’t do anything in reducing crime,” said Kovandzic, who has researched three-strikes laws. “They’re keeping people in prison and they’re seeing the repercussions in an aging prison system that’s costing them a fortune.”

This is not just Alabama’s problem.  The Ledger.com writes,

The day will come when the Florida Department of Corrections will approach the Legislature with a novel request.

Not new prisons to house the state’s ever-growing inmate population. But rather correctional nursing homes to accommodate Florida’s ever-aging prison population.”

A report from the Sentencing Project last week said 10,780 – or 11.3 percent – of Florida’s 100,816 prison inmates have life sentences. Of that, the majority, 6,224 inmates, have no possibility of parole.

Florida is not unique. The Sentencing Project said 140,160 of the nation’s 2.3 million inmates are serving life sentences; an increase of 600 percent over the last quarter century. This growth in permanent prisoners is because of the political popularity of minimum-mandatory sentencing laws and increasing restrictions on parole.

But while “get tough on crime” laws may be popular with the voters, the long-range costs to society may be onerous. Statistically, the more inmates age, the less likely they are to be repeat offenders when or if they are released. Conversely, as inmates grow older, their care and treatment becomes ever more expensive.

In effect, taxpayers end up paying proportionately more to house and care inmates who are the least likely to commit crimes if set free.”

Looking at the Sentencing Project’s numbers for Alabama, one sees that approximately 4,948 prisoners in Alabama are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole, while approximately 1,373 adult prisoners plus 15 juvenile offenders are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. That means Alabama’s prisons hold, today, approximately 1,388 people who will die in prison, having no chance for parole and a slim chance for medical furlough release. 

Tomorrow that number could go up or down.  But for it to go down, we must as a state have a frank discussion about not only the sentencing structure that has earned Alabama a top 3 spot in the nation for most life sentences imposed, but also other decisions that enable such sentencing practices, such as prison expansion.  As The Ledger reports, Florida is already moving in this direction.

Last month, a coalition of business leaders and law-enforcement professionals called on the Legislature to find ways to avoid adding still more prison beds to Florida’s $2.2 billion-and-growing correctional system.

Certainly sentencing reform and parole restoration must be high up on the agenda if lawmakers want to get a handle on runaway correctional costs.

Otherwise, the day will come when Florida taxpayers will find themselves footing the bill for a system of geriatric prisons to support aging inmates who pose little or no danger to society.

       

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