Florida pris­ons are over­crowded, so re­mov­ing el­derly in­mates makes sense

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION -

Amer­ica is gray­ing and, in Florida’s case, that means a lot of our nearly 100,000 pris­on­ers are get­ting older, too.

El­derly pris­on­ers, which the Depart­ment of Correction­s de­fines as some­one who is at least 50, now make up al­most a quar­ter of the state’s prison pop­u­la­tion, and that num­ber is steadily ris­ing each year.

Many of them are ag­ing in the sys­tem be­cause they’re serv­ing long sen­tences, dat­ing back to when tough-on-crime poli­cies swept the na­tion three decades ago. Those po­lices set the ta­ble for Amer­ica to lock up more cit­i­zens than any other na­tion in the world.

Many of them are frail. Peo­ple in prison ex­pe­ri­ence ac­cel­er­ated ag­ing, mean­ing the av­er­age 50-year-old ex­hibits the same med­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of some­one at least a decade older, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health. That’s be­cause prison con­di­tions lack con­sis­tent ac­cess to qual­ity care, and the over­all cul­ture ac­cel­er­ates the men­tal and phys­i­cal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of men and women be­hind bars.

In many cases, it’s morally and fi­nan­cially ir­re­spon­si­ble to keep all of these older and sicker pris­on­ers be­hind bars at tax­pay­ers’ ex­pense, and that’s why leg­is­la­tion call­ing for the con­di­tional re­lease of cer­tain mem­bers in this pop­u­la­tion makes sense.

Repub­li­can state Sen. Jeff Brandes in­tro­duced a pair of bills — SB 574 and SB 556 — that will help re­duce the state’s prison pop­u­la­tion by mov­ing out cer­tain peo­ple, like 70-year-old men and women bat­tling chronic ill­nesses or who no longer pose ob­vi­ous threats to so­ci­ety.

Florida al­ready has a con­di­tional med­i­cal re­lease pol­icy, but one of the bills — SB 556 — would give the DOC power over the re­view process in­stead of the Florida Com­mis­sion on Of­fender Re­view.

The more im­por­tant fac­tor here is how Florida leg­is­la­tors plan to man­age the grow­ing num­ber of ag­ing pris­on­ers. Se­nate Bill 574, which was co-in­tro­duced by Repub­li­can Sen. Keith Perry, has bi­par­ti­san sup­port in the House from Demo­cratic Rep. Bobby Dubose. That bill is call­ing for more el­derly pris­on­ers to be granted con­di­tional re­leases into com­mu­ni­ties.

This leg­is­la­tion isn’t ex­cus­ing crime or let­ting of­fend­ers off the hook. Pris­on­ers must be at least 70 and have served a min­i­mum of 10 years of their sen­tence. Peo­ple con­victed of mur­der or felony sex of­fenses are not el­i­gi­ble.

It’s far from a fast-pass out of prison. The DOC is re­spon­si­ble for iden­ti­fy­ing el­i­gi­ble of­fend­ers and rec­om­mend­ing them to a three-per­son panel, which has 45 days to fig­ure out if these in­mates can be re­leased on house ar­rest. Anyone de­nied re­lease can ap­peal to the DOC sec­re­tary, who makes the fi­nal de­ci­sion.

Given the na­tional scope of Amer­ica’s ag­ing prison pop­u­la­tion prob­lem, we’d call Florida’s ef­forts mod­est at best.

So far, 17 states have passed leg­is­la­tion sur­round­ing the con­di­tional re­lease of older in­mates. In Alabama, pris­on­ers can be as young as 55 to petition for con­di­tional re­lease. Most states sit some­where be­tween 60 to 65, but Florida leg­is­la­tors are ask­ing for a slow crawl to 70.

Older pris­on­ers pose a lesser threat to pub­lic safety, and they usu­ally are among the sick­est and most ex­pen­sive to care for.

The state does not track health­care costs for pris­on­ers by age, but the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Correction­s es­ti­mates that health-care costs for peo­ple over 50 is more than triple the cost ($70,000), com­pared with peo­ple un­der 50, which is about $20,000 per pris­oner in Florida.

And yet, the peo­ple be­hind prison bars get more gray with each pass­ing year. The DOC re­ported a 12.5% in­crease of el­derly in­mates from 2014-2018, rais­ing the to­tal from 20,753 to 23,338.

If SB 574 were to go into ef­fect to­day, just 168 peo­ple would be el­i­gi­ble to go through a lengthy process for house ar­rest. As­sum­ing all of them were ap­proved — which is un­likely — you’re talk­ing about a min­i­mum of $3 mil­lion in sav­ings.

We’d like to see the DOC in­vest some of that sav­ings into pro­grams that re­ha­bil­i­tate and ed­u­cate pris­on­ers who are ca­pa­ble of change to bet­ter them­selves so they can be more productive cit­i­zens when they are re­leased.

This is, af­ter all, the point of crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form.

Not all pris­on­ers are do­ing life sen­tences. Not all are hope­less scourges threat­en­ing hu­man­ity.

Many of them, younger and older, will go home again to re-en­gage as fathers, moth­ers, sons, daugh­ters, sib­lings, em­ploy­ees and mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ties — where the hard­est work be­gins.

Still oth­ers will go home to live out the fi­nal chap­ter of their lives. These Se­nate bills would make that path more likely.

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