Editorial: The problem of new Rx for old cons

Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — Long after the national shouting match over health-care reform dies down, state lawmakers had better brace for another boisterous citizen revolt. This time, over rising medical-care costs behind bars.

Florida's ever-growing and ever-graying stable of prisoners — many serving life sentences — could mean taxpayers will be on the hook for the ever-growing annual health-care tab for thousands of men and women guilty as Cain, but old as Adam.

That's why state lawmakers better take a hard look at sentencing and parole reforms if they want to deflate ballooning taxpayer costs in the long term.

Among Florida's 100,816 prisoners, 11.3 percent, or 10,784, are lifers, notes a recent report from the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C-based advocacy group that promotes sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration. Most of them -- 6,424 inmates -- aren't eligible for parole.

Not that Florida is alone in warehousing growing numbers of prisoners who will die behind bars. Of the nation's 2.3 million inmates, the Sentencing Project found 140,160 are serving life sentences. That 600 percent explosion over the past 25 years was fueled, in part, by tough-on-crime policies like the "three-strike" laws, mandatory minimum sentences such as Florida's "10-20-Life," and a retreat on parole.

Now, the wave of felons aging under the weight of lengthier sentences is being buoyed by a surge in aging offenders, often locked up for murder or sex crimes.

As of 2007-08, about 14.4 percent of Florida prisoners were 50 or older, which is considered elderly by the state Department of Corrections. That's nearly a 6 percent bump from the previous year. By 2030, experts predict more than one-third of state prisoners will be 50 or older.

As hard as tough sentences are on felons, the fallout hits harder on taxpayer pocketbooks. Prisoners not only are serving longer sentences, but also, in turn, consuming expensive care, prescriptions and treatment for conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and emphysema -- care that gets costlier as the prisoners get on in years.

Estimated costs for elderly prisoner care are triple those for a younger, healthy inmate, owing largely to health-care expenses. California, for example, spends upward of $138,000 annually to house and care for an elderly prisoner -- a big drain on a state about to go bust.The shame of it is, taxpayers have to foot rising health bills for older inmates who are less violent and are less likely to be repeat offenders, people who could be monitored under less costly community options.

It would be sensible for state lawmakers to get ahead of the curve by revisiting sentencing and parole reforms that balance both public safety and the budget.

Last year, at least seven states debuted or expanded medical or geriatric parole, according to a July report from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice policy and practice. U.S. correctional institutions receive no Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement for prisoner health services, but with these specialized paroles, states under Medicare and Medicaid rules share prisoner medical costs with the federal government. Washington, for instance, expects to save $1.5 million with its new geriatric and medical parole-release policy for chronically or terminally ill inmates 55 or older, according to the Vera report.

Recently, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, running for attorney general in 2010 on a law-and-order platform, dismissed the Sentencing Project report in a St. Petersburg Times article, saying, "These people are in prison for a reason."

True. But scrupulous screening would keep behind bars felons who can't play nice in society. Keeping graybeards locked up may help voters sleep better. However, bold leadership now could spare taxpayers the nightmare of having their pockets picked because of the soaring medical costs of failing felons.

Copyright 2009 Sentinel Communications Co.

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