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August 19, 2013

Making the case for releasing more of the tens of thousands of "Graying Prisoners"

03japan-600Jamie Fellner, who is a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch and focuses on US criminal justice issues, has this notable new New York Times op-ed headlined "Graying Prisoners."  Here are highlights:

More and more United States prisons resemble nursing homes with bars, where the elderly and infirm eke out shrunken lives.  Prison isn’t easy for anyone, but it is especially punishing for those afflicted by the burdens of old age. Yet the old and the very old make up the fastest-growing segment of the prison population....  [A]t least 26,100 men and women 65 and older incarcerated in state and federal prisons, up 62 percent in just five years.

Owing largely to decades of tough-on-crime policies — mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws and the elimination of federal parole — these numbers are likely to increase as more and more prisoners remain incarcerated into their 70s and 80s, many until they die....

[S]ome older inmates committed violent crimes, and there are people who think such prisoners should leave prison only “in a pine box.”  Anger, grief and the desire for retribution are understandable, and we can all agree that people who commit serious crimes should be held accountable. But retribution can shade into vengeance.  While being old should not be an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card, infirmity and illness can change the calculus of what justice requires.

It is worth asking: What do we as a society get from keeping these people in prison? People like the 87-year-old I met who had an “L” painted on his left shoe and an “R” on his right so he would know which was which and who didn’t even seem to know he was in prison.  Or the old men I watched play bingo in a prison day room who needed staff members to put the markers on the bingo cards for them.

Attorney General Eric Holder gave his answer to this question on Aug. 12 when he announced new compassionate release policies for the Bureau of Prisons.  Elderly and infirm federal prisoners who have served a significant part of their sentence and pose no danger will now be eligible for early release.

Recidivism studies consistently show declining rates of crime with age.  Those who are bedridden or in wheelchairs are not likely to go on crime sprees.  The scores of older prisoners I have met want to spend their remaining time with their families; they are coming to terms with mortality, regret their past crimes and hope, if time permits, to make amends.

Keeping the elderly and infirm in prison is extraordinarily costly.  Annual medical costs for older prisoners range from three to nine times higher than those for younger ones, because, as in the general population, older people behind bars have high rates of chronic disease and infirmities and require more hospitalizations and medical care.

I have talked with dozens of correctional staff members who acknowledge that officers are not trained to manage geriatric prisoners.  Nor are there enough of them to give the extra attention such prisoners may need — to ensure they take their medications, find their way to their cell, are clean if they are incontinent.

So what can be done?  Compassionate release and medical parole programs exist in many prison systems, but they are poorly used and often exclude people who committed violent crimes or sex offenses even if those people are no longer able to repeat such crimes.

If the programs were properly devised and used, some aging prisoners could go back to their families.  Others could be released to nursing homes or assisted-living facilities — although it is increasingly difficult to find private facilities that will take former prisoners.  States and the federal government should also jettison laws requiring mandatory sentences that condemn offenders to old age in prison, without regard to whether they pose a threat to the public or have the potential for rehabilitation.

If we aren’t willing to change sentencing laws or make more use of compassionate release, we’ll need to pour vast sums of money into prisons to provide adequate conditions of care for the soaring population of geriatric prisoners.   That means investing in special training for correction officers; in round-the-clock medical care; in retrofitting buildings, wheelchair-accessible cells and bathrooms; in units with lower bunks and no stairs; and in increased hospice care for the terminally ill.

But do we really want to go that route? In the case of frail and incapacitated prisoners who can safely be released to spend what remains of their lives under supervised parole, release is a far more compassionate, sensible course.

August 19, 2013 at 05:44 PM | Permalink


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The article concludes: "In the case of frail and incapacitated prisoners who can safely be released to spend what remains of their lives under supervised parole, release is a far more compassionate, sensible course."

Usual left-wing, bleeding heart nonsense. As Tars, Bill Otis, Federalist and others have pointed out many times, these folks get old, get sick and die like all of the rest of us do. So what if they're in prison. If they can't do the time.... Besides, as Bill Otis and others point out, there is no such thing as folks who can "safely be released." These folks are dangerous felons;why else would they be serving such long sentences--and look how the crime rates have dropped.

And as S.Ct. points out, don't talk about "compassion" for these folks. Have compassion instead for the victims. Yes, let the victims take pleasure in watching these inmates grow old, grow sick, and die.

Posted by: anon | Aug 19, 2013 9:43:07 PM

You must know that there are many non-violent drug offenders who have received life without parole in the federal system. There are non-violent marijuana offenders serving life sentences. This is not only beyond common sense, it is fiscally irresponsible.

Another fact that is little known is that these non-violent offenders are housed in High Security facilities strictly on the length of their sentences. They are housed with murderers and rapeist who are released. This increases the BOP's appropriation unnecessairly. Housing these non-violent offenders till their death will cost billions.

Most all who receive these egregious sentences were convicted of conspiracy and also went to trial. Their sentences are many fold longer than those who did not go to trial.

Posted by: beth | Aug 19, 2013 10:44:27 PM

Beth, with all respect, save your tears. And please don't trot out the tired argument keep these felons incarcerated "is fiscally irresponsible." As Bill Otis and the others point out, fiscal matters are irrelevant when it comes to public safety.

Posted by: anon | Aug 19, 2013 10:55:43 PM

If fiscal matters are irrelevant when it comes to public safety, why do prosecutors justify giving some coconspirators a fraction of the sentence their cohorts get if they plead guilty and save the government the cost of trying the case? If people were sentenced on culpability alone and not how much money they saved the government, the prosecutors would howl.

Posted by: Thinkaboutit | Aug 19, 2013 11:09:51 PM

anon --

I'll state my own position, thank you.

I also state my name. Want to give it a try with yours?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2013 12:19:43 AM

Anon, I'm sure we do disagree about the cost of government and probably also many other things, but don't dismiss my thoughts as "tired". Government waste in all areas is a valid concern for those paying the bill. I don't think that public safety is exempt from scrutiny when it comes to cost. We must be sensible.

Posted by: beth | Aug 20, 2013 12:23:20 AM

beth --

He's jiving you. I never said anything like "there is no such thing as folks who can 'safely be released.'" That's a classic straw man.

Anon's need to fabricate my position is one reason -- but I suspect only one -- that he hides his name.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2013 12:31:26 AM

Thinkaboutit --

You are one guy I'm sure isn't taken in by this fiscal argument. Liberals don't give a tinker's dam about frugality and never have. They borrow and spend amounts on their nanny/welfare/entitlement state that utterly dwarf the spending on prison.

The amount of effort they put into anything that would actually make a dent in spending (to wit, no effort as all) completely exposes as fake their crocodile tears about criminal justice spending.

They want criminals back on the street just as the did forty and fifty years ago. All this new-found (and very selective) concern about frugality is just a cover for the old and still-unchanged agenda.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2013 12:44:49 AM

So Mr. Otis, if anon is wrong about your views on who can be safely released, why don't you tell us who, in your view, can be safely released?

Posted by: observer | Aug 20, 2013 12:49:16 AM

Bill Otis, you write that " Liberals don't give a tinker's dam about frugality and never have. They borrow and spend amounts on their nanny/welfare/entitlement state that utterly dwarf the spending on prison."

So aren't your views and anon's about the same on this point?

Posted by: observer | Aug 20, 2013 12:51:40 AM

You're right, Bill. I don't think liberals care about cutting spending. And, anyway, I don't think that's the best argument for reform. (I also don't think, however, that the liberals I know what criminals out on the street to hurt anyone or commit more crimes. You might think their policy choices are mistaken, but I hope you don't assume bad motives.) But conservatives are supposed to care about the costs of programs, even fundamental government programs like anti-terror and anti-crime programs. Heck, I recognize that being a purist on factory emissions would probably save lives and reduce childhood asthma, but I still support cost-benefit analysis for those types of policies. All I am saying is that prosecutors say you can't put a price tag on justice, but then argue that they should be able to give sweet deals to criminals who plead and cooperate - why? - because it saves the government money. Can't have it both ways.

Posted by: Thinkaboutit | Aug 20, 2013 1:01:54 AM

I would support release if 5% of the savings is spent on follow up studies. So if the released prisoners are committing dozens of sex crimes and thefts in the nursing or family homes, the releases should end.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 20, 2013 6:33:08 AM

From my vast experience data has shown and ex Judge Jack Camp's actions has proven that ALL federal Govt employees pretty much are guilty of crimes as Jacks. Therefore all current and ex (most important) must receive a Mandatory Minimum of 20 yrs.. Supervised Release must be life...

The above statement makes about as much sense as some of the bloggers on this site.. They act like a sheep and don't think on their own.
Merely echoing or supporting the views of another who qualifies for the above statement, if it were true...
Are the majority of you people out therein the world trying to say basically that once a person is in prison, you may as well keep them there forever.. Pretty much that is the direction.

Better look in the mirror and do some thinking.. Such Supremacy thinking gets people in a lot of trouble...You don't have to take much of a step, with attitudes like some on this site. Even though I don't leave my name, I'm just as responsible as the next that does..

Try this on for size.. Each person do their own thinking.. But of coarse if your a few gigabytes short that and the echo explains it..

See, I can be as nasty as some of Ewe can.

Posted by: MidWest Guy | Aug 20, 2013 9:33:33 AM

observer --

"So Mr. Otis, if anon is wrong about your views on who can be safely released, why don't you tell us who, in your view, can be safely released?"

I'll be happy to do that AFTER you and he admit that anon was lying about my position. We're not just going to have people do that kind of sleazy dishonesty and move right along.

Would I be well advised to wait?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2013 11:57:43 AM

Thinkaboutit --

Life is full of unhappy compromises required, as you say, by the fact of scarcity. You and I agree that choices have to be made; we just disagree about what those choices are.

In my view and (I think) largely yours as well, the only place we can achieve significant savings is where we have significant costs, and, in the federal budget, that is SS, Medicaid, Medicare and now Obamacare.

When the liberals here show some serious determination about cutting those -- and I mean actually cutting, not pretending to cut -- then they can constructively engage about cost effective cuts to the criminal justice system. One I might suggest to start with, if we are to go there, is to limit all defense spending for the ice-cold-guilty Dzokhar Tsarnaev to a million bucks, rather than the zillions Judy Clarke has planned to hire bought-and-paid-for shrinks.

McVeigh got over $12,000,000 of taxpayer money for a phony, dishonest defense. It was a scandal. It's spending like that which first ought to go on the chopping block.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2013 12:08:27 PM

$12 mill for Mcveigh, wew....I had no idea.

SSN, its tough to cut, they will loose significant votes.

Medicare - Co pays and deductibles, (currently have)
Weight control Penalties
Alcohol control Penalties
Smoking Penalties
(background checks - why not, medical rcds etc.)
Medicaid - This is where we bring in the bulldozer. (2 yr limit)
May have to do something to get something..
(terrible idea I know)
Housing, must contribute 20 hrs weekly for most
if they can. (most must be made to) Limit 2 yrs.
Can help the city out with manual labor, church
groups, mowing grass, snow removal etc. All is $$$
In short, if you want to be HELPED out ok. But its not going to be
forever and you are going to give back as well.

Unemployment: Get no mkore than 26 weeks in total, don't matter if its
state and federal together, ever...Take a lesser job and move on.

The check is never cut until the requirements have been satisfied.
Therefore it willbe behind a few weeks. The idea is to make it uncomforatble to be on Entitlements, so you may as well get a job.

Side note, Bernake can stop buying buying bonds at is it $80 billion/mo

Posted by: MidWest Guy | Aug 20, 2013 1:10:06 PM

MidWestGuy --

I was wrong and apologize for the error. McVeigh's defense did not cost $12,000,000. It cost $13,800,000 and employed 19 lawyers. That's N-I-N-E-T-E-E-N.


I always enjoy your posts, even when I'm pushing the Sentencing Guidelines button behind my left ear.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2013 5:57:34 PM

Mr. Otis, you write, "McVeigh got over $12,000,000 of taxpayer money for a phony, dishonest defense. It was a scandal. It's spending like that which first ought to go on the chopping block."

What about all the federal and state prosecutors who spend millions upon millions of taxpayers money to prosecute and incarcerate folks like michael Morton and keep him incarcerated for 20 years when they knew he was innocent? And how about all the millions spent by federal and state prosecutors whose convictions have been reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct and suppressing favorable evidence? Look to the beam in your own eye before attacking the mite in theirs.

Posted by: Amy from Dallas | Aug 20, 2013 7:06:31 PM

Amy from Dallas --

Does that mean you approve spending those many millions for McVeigh's concocted defense?

Or maybe he was innocent after all -- framed by a big government/media conspiracy, dontcha think?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2013 7:23:19 PM

In a previous e-mail I wrote "as Bill Otis and others point out, there is no such thing as folks who can "safely be released."

Upon rechecking my sources, I see that I made a mistake. Bill Otis never said this. I retract the statement and apologize to Mr. Otis for the error.

Posted by: anon | Aug 20, 2013 8:17:23 PM

All hail to anon for admitting a mistake and apologizing to Bill Otis!

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Aug 20, 2013 8:24:15 PM

Mr. Otis, I see that anon has retracted his statement and has apologized to you about your views on who can be safely released. Can you say now who, in your view, could be safely released?

Posted by: observer | Aug 20, 2013 8:27:39 PM

anon --

Thank you. I would respectfully ask that, in the future, you quote me directly and in context when you want to describe my position. I appreciate your apology.

Michael R. Levine --

As ever, the man who shows class around here.

observer --

You still blithely walk past anon's misstatement of my position and just stay on offense. That does not work with me. You knew from the getgo that his statement was wrong, but instead of correcting it, you used it as a launching pad.

Do you think I'm going to indulge that by submitting to your cross-examination?

I will answer your question, but only after you admit what you tried to pull and accept responsibility for it. I note that when, in this very thread, I was factually in error, I admitted it and apologized with no prompting.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2013 8:49:40 PM

well bill right now the govt has no right to say much about SS. Till they pay back the tillions they have barrowed from the social security trust fund. they don't have it!

Sorry when you owe someone money. They call the tune not you!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 21, 2013 9:37:46 PM

Mr. Otis, forget about onlooker; he's a jerk.

But I am curious as to who, if anyone, you think could be released without endangering public safety?

Posted by: curious | Aug 22, 2013 5:50:54 PM

onlooker/observer (now posting as curious) --

Nice try.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 23, 2013 9:44:03 AM

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