ACLU: New Approach to Elderly Inmates Could Save Millions

Nationwide, states spend $16 billion in taxpayer funds per year to incarcerate 246,600 prisoners over age 50, according to the report, "At America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly."
by | June 14, 2012

By Tovin Lapan, Las Vegas Sun

Nevada and other states could save millions if they reassessed their approach to elderly, low-risk inmates, a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Nationwide, states spend $16 billion in taxpayer funds per year to incarcerate 246,600 prisoners over age 50, according to the report, "At America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly," released Wednesday.

With 17.2 percent, or 2,193 inmates, older than 50, Nevada ranks sixth among states with "elderly" inmates. The Silver State could save up to $200 million by releasing the elderly inmates, under one of the ACLU's scenarios.

"I want to be clear, the Nevada ACLU and the national ACLU are not saying there aren't dangerous criminals over the age of 50. There certainly are," said Dane Claussen, executive director of the Nevada ACLU. "We're not advocating for everyone who is 50 be paroled. We need to look at the overall picture and take into account all of those things: the 'three-strikes' law, the 'truth-in-sentencing' law, and costs and benefits of incarcerating different categories of criminals."

The report offers three estimates on the annual national cost of housing elderly inmates -- $28,362, $66,294 and $104,436 -- based on the cost of incarceration, medical care, and other factors weighed against the increased cost of parole supervision and public benefits.

The Nevada Department of Corrections' 2011 budget pegged the average cost of housing an inmate for a year at $23,150, and the national average is $34,135, according to the ACLU. But elderly inmates can cost more because of increased medical needs and other issues.

The ACLU derived its numbers from a study that considered spending from a state's department of corrections on each prisoner, along with all state spending, including health care, on each prisoner. It estimates that incarcerating an elderly person costs twice as much as other prisoners.

If Nevada paroled or released its entire prison population over 50, the state would save roughly $62 million under the low-end cost estimate, $145 million under the mid-range estimate and $229 million using the high-end estimate, the ACLU said.

The total 2011 budget for the Nevada Department of Corrections was just more than $301 million.

The ACLU report cites research indicating the arrest rate for people over 50 is just above 2 percent and falls to virtually 0 percent for those over 65.

"The statistics taken together strongly suggest that the increasing incarceration of aging prisoners is not due to any 'older crime wave' but rather due to younger prisoners who are sentenced to longer terms in prison, often for not-so-serious crimes," the report states.

The ACLU report and Claussen said it's time to re-evaluate tough mandatory-sentencing laws, the classifications of certain crimes and a special provision that would allow elderly inmates to request parole hearings.

Since 1994, Nevada has had a three-strikes law, also known as a "habitual offender" law, that mandates lengthy sentences for individuals convicted repeatedly of certain crimes. Nevada also enacted a truth-in-sentencing law in 1995 that requires individuals to serve 85 percent of their prison term before being eligible for parole.

The report suggests offering conditional parole to low-risk elderly prisoners, expanding medical parole and providing more direction to parole boards to consider age in their decisions. While 50 might sound young for someone to be labeled "elderly," the ACLU says research shows there is a physiological wear and tear from prison that means prisoners "age more rapidly."

Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, has lobbied in the past for reducing the costs of the state prison system. While he said he was intrigued by the ACLU's suggestions, he stopped short of advocating for a complete review of sentencing laws.

"It's worthwhile for Nevada to look at a process whereby low-risk elderly prisoners might be considered for greater access to parole hearings with clear guidelines on how that prisoner would be deemed to be a risk to public safety or not," Hickey said. "Any sort of wholesale review of sentencing laws, however, would have to be done in conjunction with law enforcement and public safety officials as well as multiple levels of local and state government. I'm not prepared to say that we need to water down laws."

In 2011, the Nevada Department of Corrections executed cuts to reduce its annual budget by $36.3 million, including closing the 150-year-old Nevada State Prison in Carson City and relocating its 700 inmates to other prisons.

(c)2012 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.)

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