Last year, state legislators passed a bill to open the compassionate-release program to permanently medically incapacitated prisoners, such as a prisoner who is a quadriplegic, in hopes of saving millions of dollars. The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office backed the plan. But Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it, arguing that the legislation lacked "any mechanism to return these prisoners to custody" if they either recovered or posed a threat to public safety.
Other cost-saving measures used in other states have yet to gain traction in California. One involves creating minimum-security units for geriatric prisoners and staffing them with fewer, but specially trained, corrections officers. Another hinges on releasing sick inmates who have the potential to tap Medicare, Social Security or veterans benefits and tracking them via a $10-a-day bracelet system.
But Turley, of Project for Older Prisoners, believes California will get the largest return through a systematic release program like the ones he helped implement in Virginia, Maryland, Louisiana, North Carolina and Michigan. Conservatives and liberals embrace that approach, Turley says, because it's based on risk. "We can predict recidivism pretty well," he says. "If California created a Project for Older Prisoners office at a law school, like in other states, it would help remove prisoners that are low risk and high cost. They gain cell space and save dollars. A win-win situation." The state should also look into creating an alternative incarceration program, and look into working with its public health programs and its universities to supply medical care to inmates, Turley adds.
Kidney patient Helen Loheac, in Corona, sees a simple solution for her case: release. She would live out her remaining time in a small room saved for her by the nuns at Crossroads in Claremont, who often reach out to inmates. Sister Terry Dodge has said she would take her in, and Medicare would pay for dialysis.
Frank Parker would return to his family in Northern California, as would Claude Hoffman.
The release of many elderly prisoners would shift the financial burden of their health and welfare from the state to the federal government. It would free state funds to not only help balance the budget, but pay for schools, parks and highways.
As with so many matters of public policy, the obvious solution sometimes seems out of reach, bogged down in legitimate disagreements between opposing sides.
Many advocates for the elderly in prison, including state Sen. Romero and The Sentencing Project's King, believe three-strikes reform is the only long-term solution. "We need to look at our sentencing legislation and what's putting those people there to begin with," King says.
The governor's administration disagrees. "There's nothing wrong with the sentencing structure in California," says Tremblay of the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. "And we're certainly not emptying out our prisons to balance the budget."
So Claude Hoffman waits. The Christmas tree gives way to chicks and bunnies as he marks his second Easter at the hospice. Baseball season opens. Hoffman dreamily recalls seeing Babe Ruth and Hank Greenberg play in Detroit, his hometown. He hopes to watch a game with his family, one last time.