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April 15, 2012

When do the costs of incarcerating the elderly clearly outweigh any benefits?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this commentary from the Tulsa World, which is headlined "A Wow Moment: The aging of Oklahoma's prison population."  Here are excerpts:

If the state can prove that [73-year-old Darlene] Mayes is what it claims she is, a marijuana queenpin who supplied 40 percent of the marijuana sales around Grand Lake, there could be other wow moments. Like the wow moment for taxpayers and the Department of Corrections when yet another aging offenderwith the equivalent of a life sentenceis added to the more than 5,000 geriatric inmates already in the prison system. These are inmates in varyingand some very costlystages of declining health.

How useful is sending or keeping some of these older inmates in prison? Does their incarceration deter others in the AARP set from dipping into crime? Does it protect the community, or simply cost it?

Oklahoma has thousands of inmates, of all ages, behind bars serving time for drug offenses. That fact obviously hasn't deterred many others from getting in the business despite the risks. So, if deterrence isn't working, how about risk to the community? Are there alternatives to prison that would protect public safety but not cost taxpayers an arm and a leg in medical costs for an aging inmate?

If there are two categories of people that Oklahoma likes to lock up, it is women and drug offenders. Oklahoma ranks No. 1 nationally in per-capita female incarceration and is fairly high up the ladder in the percentage of drug offenders in prison.

But it is not only the number of drug offenders and female offenders that's grown exponentially in the past few decades. Oklahoma also has had marked growth in the number of older inmates, a population that presents expensive health-care challenges.

In 1980, DOC had only 85 inmates age 50 or older in its entire prison system. By 2010, that figure had grown to 3,952, and by 2013, the population is expected to reach 5,254 - a 48 percent increase. This is not favorable news for the DOC, taxpayers or older inmates.

"Inmates don't come to us in good health to start with," DOC Director Justin Jones told Tulsa World reporter Barbara Hoberock two years ago. "After years of substance abuse, when they get into their mid-50s, they have an array of chronic illness." Several years ago, DOC opened a geriatric facility at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. "We filled it up the day we opened," Jones said of the 273-inmate facility.

In fiscal year 2000, DOC's total inmate health-care costs were about $34 million, which rose to more than $61 million by fiscal year 2010. A disproportionate share of that cost, by necessity, is being spent on care of older inmates.

This aging of the prison population poses tough choices for lawmakers and agency heads grappling with ever tighter budgets and demands to cut spending. A Time magazine article reported that policymakers "must address soaring medical costs for these older inmates and ponder whether some can be safely released before their sentences expire."

That might work for some nonviolent offenders, who could be paroled and use Medicaid or Medicare benefits instead of DOC-supported care. But how well would that play politically?

In many states, which have no choice financially, early-release programs targeted at older, nonviolent inmates are being tried. Compounding the issue, however, is the difficulty of finding nursing homes for aging, recently released felons who have no families and cannot live on their own. Some states are looking at starting long-term care facilities outside prison to care for parolees.

April 15, 2012 at 01:52 PM | Permalink


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"who could be paroled and use Medicaid or Medicare benefits instead of DOC-supported care."

Exactly. Someone is paying for it somewhere, which is why the country continues to spiral into deeper debt. Americans want everything to go "their way" and yet they always want the other guy to pay for it.

If society doesn't want to pay for a life-time sentence, don't sentence them to life.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 15, 2012 4:09:07 PM

And I would say that society should not even be on the hook for massively interventionist care in such cases. If an offenders sentence is longer than their remaining actuarial lifespan (taking into account the fact that they are incarcerated and not a member of the total general population) they should get no more than hospice type care so long as they are not contagious.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 15, 2012 6:44:59 PM

If retribution trumps incapacitation by illness or old age, then pay the cost of retribution and don't whine about it.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 15, 2012 7:02:11 PM

Daniel is right, "If society doesn't want to pay for a life-time sentence, don't sentence them to life." This indeed true because what's the purpose of giving life-time sentence of in the first place our people are not even in favor to it.

Posted by: Kurt Haze | Sep 7, 2012 8:03:58 PM

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