Measure would allow some older inmates out of prison
Gainsville.com; By Suevon Lee,Staff writer
Published: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 5:28 p.m.
As Florida grapples with a budget shortfall and experiences a swelling in its prison ranks, some lawmakers are introducing new measures that could directly impact the incarcerated elderly while saving the state some dollars.
In what marks the latest sign that legislators are acknowledging the state’s rising prison population and its cost to taxpayers, Sen. Chris L. Smith (D-West Palm Beach) has proposed the early release of certain elderly inmates who meet a specific criteria and come under review before the Parole Commission.
Although other states have adopted such an early-release policy, Florida has yet to consider such a measure, even as one-third of its state prison population is expected to be older than age 50 by 2030.
Senate Bill 484, and its companion House Bill 1515, proposes that inmates age 50 and older who have served at least 25 consecutive years of prison be eligible to petition the Parole Commission for early release. The petition would trigger a notification to the victim or victim’s family. Those cleared under this proposed Elderly Rehabilitated Inmate Program would be required to perform 10 hours of community service for each year served in prison and be subject to electronic monitoring for at least a year.
“This is putting another tool in the toolbox,” said Smith, an attorney and first-term senator. “With our budget situation, we’re having to cut everywhere — health services and education — yet our corrections’ budget is still very robust.”
Studies concur that the cost of elderly inmate care takes up a substantial portion of states’ corrections budgets. The average yearly cost for an elderly inmate is $70,000, according to the Pew Center on the States. This is higher than average because of the greater medical attention they demand, exacerbated by the stress of isolation and possible victimization in prison, the organization finds.
At the end of fiscal year 2008, inmates age 50 and older comprised 15.1 percent of Florida’s total inmate population — that figure alone represents one-third of the estimated number of inmates expected to die in prison, according to a recent study by Florida’s Correctional Medical Authority, an independent body that evaluates the quality of physical and mental health services provided to Florida’s inmates.
Elderly inmates, the report found, have greater health problems and thereby consume more services and are prescribed more medications than their younger counterparts.
“Much of the literature on aging inmates reports that these inmates cost an average of three times as much as younger inmates,” that annual report concluded.
In an interview, Smith, 40, said he was driven to introduce such legislation this session based on what he’s learned other states around the country are doing to address their fiscal challenges.
In 2008, seven states — Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wyoming — established medical or geriatric parole, while in 2009, New York, Washington and Wisconsin began implementing similar policies targeting its elderly inmates.
“There has been a very long-standing concern over the growth of older inmates in prison. There is this wave of financial problems that are making the concerns more urgent,” said Tina Chiu of the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent New York organization focusing on justice policy.
That is the kind of impetus behind Smith’s proposal.
“Instead of spending $100,000 on medical care for an elderly prisoner, I’d rather use that to put a couple of kids though college,” he said.
The Florida Department of Corrections, which operated on a $2.2 billion budget last fiscal year, spent $439 million on health services alone for approximately 101,000 inmates in the last year, according to George MacLafferty, DOC’s assistant secretary for Health Services.
Certain facilities around the state are even specially outfitted to handle elderly inmates, including Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Pasco County and River Junction Work Camp in Chattahoochee.
While it’s unclear exactly how many inmates Smith’s proposed legislation as written would ultimately affect, Florida TaxWatch, a private, non-partisan research institute, found at least 500 inmates could qualify as of January 2010 under similar guidelines.
The organization found that the state could save $2 million in 2010-2011 and $3 million the next fiscal year if inmates older than 65 serving a sentence other than capital murder, and who have served at least 20 years of their sentence, were released early.
Smith’s bill, which has been discussed only in the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee since being introduced March 1, has its opponents, including law enforcement arms, which find the criteria, particularly the age threshold of 50, as “problematic.”
“The last thing we want is someone to be released early from a sentence to go back to the community to commit another violent crime,” said Steve Casey, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Florida Sheriff’s Association. “The sheriffs are always going to take a very conservative view of these matters. We’re there to protect the public.”
Smith, who spent eight terms in the Florida House before being elected to the Senate last year, doesn’t expect the bill to pass this legislative session, but he’s hopeful that it’s at least fostering dialogue among fellow lawmakers.
“This is the first time this has come up,” he said. “The discussion is starting and maybe that’s where we get this year.
“This may only affect 10 people — 10 people who are basically dying, and we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars [on incarceration],” he added.
Contact Suevon Lee at 867-4065 or firstname.lastname@example.org