Older Prisoners in Jersey Jails Create Tax Burden – Should They Be Released Early [POLL]
One of the more memorable scenes in the movie “Shawshank Redemption” was the one in which Brooks Hatlen, played by James Whitmore, is about to be let out of prison after having spent the better part of his life behind 4 walls.
He’s become accustomed to prison life; and now as an elderly man, will have to start life all over again.
Such is the burden will all have to face as the prison population here in New Jersey ages.
It’s a burden, because as they age, they require extra medical care, which we as a state cannot realistically afford.
However we did demand that they be put away for longer sentences, especially in light of policies like “three strikes and you’re out.”
Which leads us to the question, should we release those offenders who’ve committed no violent crimes but are aging?
And was it expedient to send them away for longer sentences in the first place; not realizing that they’d become wards of the state.
Since 2000, the number of prisoners over age 50 in New Jersey's state prisons has jumped nearly 90 percent. Now nearly 3,000 older prisoners are in the state's eight adult correctional institutions.
The older prisoner population has continued to soar even as the number of adult offenders incarcerated in New Jersey state prisons has declined by 7 percent since 2009, to about 17,000 last year, according to state Department of Corrections figures.
Older prisoners are also the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population. An estimated 246,000 people over 50 were behind bars last year, according to a 2012 American Civil Liberties Union report.
The growing number of older prisoners, represents a potential fiscal time bomb for the state and nation: Elderly prisoners cost more because almost all expenses related to their health care must be borne by state tax dollars.
If it costs New Jersey an average of $71,000 to care for each elderly inmate, as one study suggests, that would cost taxpayers $21.3 million — about double the cost for the same number of younger, healthy inmates.
"Is it morally and financially the right thing to keep them in prison?" said Tina Maschi, a Fordham University professor who is conducting a study on New Jersey's older inmate population in an effort to develop programs aimed at improving the mental and physical health of elderly prisoners. "In prison, are we turning a blind eye to the fact that we need to take a look at these older people differently?"
(Department of Corrections spokesman Matt) Schuman said the DOC is concerned about the growth in the older inmate population, but plans no changes "in the immediate future." He said department officials will continue to closely monitor the situation. Down the road, there may be rising medical costs and "possibly a requirement for specialized housing," Schuman said.
Starting in the mid-1970s, a nationwide push to get tough on crime included enactment of mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws that sends offenders to prison for life if convicted of three serious offenses.
The result: the U.S. prison population soared, growing at 11 times the rate of the general population from 1980 to 2010. There are about 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., and with more inmates serving longer sentences, the number of elderly prisoners has also jumped.
In 2012, more than 70 percent of the inmates in New Jersey's state prisons were serving sentences that included mandatory minimum terms before parole, according to the corrections department.
Most of the inmates' health care costs are paid for by the corrections department.
A 1998 study by Barry Holman, "Nursing Homes Behind Bars: The Elderly in Prison," found 3.2 percent of prisoners 55 and older returned to prison within a year of their release, compared with 45 percent of offenders 18 to 29 years old.
But it's not a politically popular stance to call for early release of prisoners. There is no push to advocate for a geriatric release law in New Jersey. There is a belief that someone who is sentenced by a judge should not have his sentence reduced by the Parole Board.
Maschi, the Fordham professor, said even if prisoners are released, there may be no place for them to live. Often family members have passed on or may not be able to care for the former inmate. Those behind prison walls need treatment that includes not just care for their bodies, but also input from mental health professionals, she said. Nearly one-third of the older prisoners in Maschi's study had serious mental health issues.
Fact is, should we even care?
Given that "moral responsibility" that Maschi speaks of, would it be the prudent thing to do to release the elderly?
We wanted them away for longer sentences when they were younger criminals. Should we change course now and release them?