Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
Mandatory-minimum sentences have turned prisons into nursing homes
“Get tough on crime” was an extravagant preoccupation in 1990s Florida. The bill has come due.
“Law and order” legislators from both parties tried to outdo one another in the art of political sophistry. Burnishing tough-guy images was more important than long-term economics. Or basic criminology.
State lawmakers abolished parole. They attached ever longer mandatory-minimum sentences to ever more felonies. All without considering the financial burden they were heaping on Florida taxpayers, circa 2023.
Three decades later, thousands of doddering ancients inhabit state prison wards, their release dates well beyond life expectancies. All that political get-toughness has given Florida perpetual custody of inmates bent with arthritis, stricken with hepatitis, heart disease, cancer, emphysema, diabetes, cirrhosis, pleurisy, cataracts, Alzheimer’s, HIV and worn-out joints in need of replacement.
When the Legislature went into a law-and-order frenzy in 1993, less than 3,000 state prison inmates were classified as elderly. The most recent Department of Corrections Annual Report (fiscal year 2021-to-2022) counted 23,557 geriatrics, a 3.9% increase over the previous year.
“Florida prisons are on a steady trajectory to become the world’s largest nursing homes,” Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice warned in 2015. Since that report was issued, the proportion of elderly inmates in the state prison system has grown from 20% to 28% of the total population. A 2019 state analysis found DOC’s geriatric population had grown by 77% in the previous decade even as the overall number of prisoners had decreased.
State and federal corrections officials classify inmates over 50 as elderly, given that the average convict suffers “chronic illness and disability approximately 10-15 years earlier” than the outside population. Prison docs say poor diet and the chronic use of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs combined with the stress of prison life has accelerated aging. With all the attendant health care needs.
The DOC reported that elderly inmates — 28% of the prison population, remember — account for 55% of outpatient medical treatment, 61% of hospital admissions and 69% of the days spent in hospital. Last fiscal year, health care costs consumed $567 million of the DOC budget.
Florida isn’t alone. A 2018 study by the Pew Charitable Trust warned, “Nearly every state is seeing that upward tick in elderly state prisoners. For state prisons, the consequence of that aging is money, more and more of it every year.” The Pew report found that providing health care for geriatric inmates costs four-to-eight times more than seeing to the medical needs of younger prisoners.
The problem may be national, but it’s especially acute in Florida with the 10th highest incarceration rate in the nation, according to a Crime and Justice Institute study commissioned in 2016 by the Florida Legislature.
The CJI noted that Florida lawmakers have attached mandatory minimum sentences to 108 criminal offenses. Florida is also one of only six states that requires even nonviolent offenders to serve at least 85% of their prison terms. A 2021 study by the Marshall Project found that Florida had more than 13,600 people serving life without parole, “far more than any other state and almost a quarter of the total nationwide.”
In a 2015 study, Florida Tax Watch warned that the cost of caring for elderly prisoners was only going to escalate: “Prison in Florida is no longer simply a detention facility for young people, it is largely becoming a repository for elderly prisoners serving extended sentences.”
Tax Watch recommended (to no avail) that the state stave off the coming economic catastrophe by paroling nonhomicidal, elderly prisoners, a category unlikely to re-offend.
CJI found little downside to shortening excessive sentences. “Research has demonstrated that longer time spent in prison is not associated with lower recidivism and long sentences may be adding significant costs to the taxpayer with very little or no improvement in public safety.”
The Legislature, of course, ignored the CJI findings, leaving taxpayers stuck with the deferred cost of the 1990s’ crime-buster political posturing. And here we go again. Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced a modern version of old-time law-and-order legislation that, among other draconian measures, would mandate life sentences for anyone convicted of possessing, selling or manufacturing the multi-colored fentanyl tablets that the governor said resembles candy.
Last May, he signed a law that included lengthy mandatory prison sentences for anyone convicted of dealing fentanyl or methamphetamines, including a life sentence if the transaction is linked to a fatal overdose. Never mind the ineffectiveness of get-tough laws evidenced by America’s failed 50-year-long War on Drugs.
But this is more about good politics than good policy. Besides, Florida’s bill won’t come due for another 30 years.