Florida prisons are overcrowded, so removing elderly inmates makes sense
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.