Release Elderly Inmates

JONATHAN TURLEY is a law professor at George Washington University and the founder and director of the Project for Older Prisoners.

GOV. ARNOLD Schwarzenegger's declaration of a "state of emergency" has finally caused members of both parties to face a state prison crisis more than three decades in the making. In 2003, I reviewed the California prison system at the request of a joint committee of the state Senate and Assembly. Like experts before and since, I found a developing crisis of unparalleled dimensions.

There are 172,000 prisoners in the state system; it's likely to surpass 193,000 by 2011. It is a system in cascading failure. Local jails have had to release felons early because they are backed up with prisoners who cannot be moved into state prisons.

The situation is even more dire in those state prisons. Overcrowding has turned the system into a massive warehousing of humans. Inmates are stacked three high in cells and housed in hallways and converted gyms; rehabilitation and work programs have been eliminated to make room for bunks. Some prisons are 200% to 300% over capacity. In 29 out of 33 prisons, crowding is so extreme that prisoners are, according to the state, in "extreme peril."

In order to preserve basic living conditions and make room for incoming prisoners, correctional officials have to "rent" cells from other states. This is hardly a long-term solution, as prison officials admit. It is akin to solving overcrowding in your apartment by continually putting stuff into storage — it is merely an illusion of progress with compounding rental bills.

Perhaps the only positive aspect of this crisis is that it will force California's leaders to end years of denials. It is no longer a question of whether prisoners will be released, but which ones. This is a decision that must be made on the basis of societal and not political risks.

We must make risk-based decisions that select the lowest-risk individuals for release. Under the current system, California has the nation's highest recidivism rate; a staggering 70% of inmates commit new crimes within three years of release. Although mistakes are inevitable, the science of predicting recidivism has come a long way since the days of phrenology, or measuring heads to predict criminal inclinations.

Among the various factors, the most reliable is age. As a general rule, people become less dangerous as they age. In males, the greatest drop in recidivism occurs around age 30 and tends to continue to fall. In addition to their lower risk, older prisoners impose much higher costs on the system. Because of maintenance and medical costs, the average cost of an older prisoner is two to three times that of a younger prisoner.

Many years ago I created the Project for Older Prisoners, or POPS, to deal with the nation's rising population of older and geriatric prisoners. In California, the number of prisoners 55 and older has doubled since 1997. Today, there are almost 20,000 prisoners over 50, including 717 over 70.

The worst is yet to come. The reduction of parole and increased sentences have produced a large, stagnant group that is now entering middle age like a rabbit moving through a snake.

To make matters even worse, studies have shown that prisoners are physiologically 10 years older than they are chronologically. Inmates are becoming more demanding and costly because of their physiological age, producing ballooning hidden costs.

In 2003, POPS proposed a risk-based approach in dealing with the state's burgeoning older prisoner population. The basic components are:

•  Establishment of POPS programs through law schools — a move recommended years ago by the governor's task force. POPS students are trained to identify and evaluate low-risk prisoners within the system.

•  Creation of a system for the supervised release of low-risk, high-cost prisoners.

•  Creation of alternative forms of incarceration for mid-risk prisoners. Many prisoners can be placed into electronic bracelet programs that can reduce the daily costs of incarceration from $65 a day to roughly $10.

•  Establishment of geriatric units for high-risk, older prisoners. More than 50% of the costs of maintaining prisoners are attributed to the salaries and packages of correctional officers. Decrease the number of guards, you decrease the per capita cost of inmates. Although a geriatric prisoner may still be a risk for a given category of crime, he is unlikely to toss his walker over a razor-wire fence or outrun perimeter guards.

Such a system can lower costs, improve care for inmates and reduce crime by making room for more dangerous, younger prisoners. For example, by placing older prisoners into special units, the state can slash medical costs by having staff trained to recognize and deal with gerontological disease before they become acute conditions.

Such a system could result in the removal of hundreds or even thousands of prisoners from the system — quickly. Although politicians love to speak of fighting for victims, they have refused to act to prevent people from becoming victims in the first place. If California leaders want to be "tough on crime," they will have to make tough decisions. If they are finally ready, they should look first to their aging prison population.

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