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ACLU: States could save billions by releasing some elderly prisoners

Tim Gruber / Tim Gruber for the ACLU

States would save on average more than $66,000 per year by releasing each elderly prisoner who no longer poses a threat, the ACLU says.

States could save billions of dollars a year without compromising public safety if they released low-risk prisoners who are age 50 and older, the ACLU says.

A report released Wednesday by the organization finds that states spend more than $16 billion of taxpayer money annually locking up hundreds of thousands of “elderly” prisoners who are unlikely to re-offend.

“Extremely disproportionate sentencing policies, fueled by the ‘tough on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ movements, have turned our prisons into nursing homes, and taxpayers are footing the bill,” Inimai Chettiar, ACLU advocacy and policy counsel and one of the report’s lead authors, said in a news release.

“Lawmakers need to implement reforms that lead to the release of those elderly prisoners who no longer pose a safety threat sufficient to justify their continued incarceration and reform our sentencing policies to prevent this epidemic at the outset.”

The report, “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,” says states would save an average of more than $66,000 per year for each older, low-risk prisoner released – even after factoring in post-release costs such as housing and health care.

“While some of these prisoners may turn to the government for their health care or other needs, government expenditures on released aging prisoners will be far cheaper than the costs of incarcerating them,” the report says.

According to the ACLU, 50 is the criminological consensus of when a prisoner becomes "elderly" because people age physiologically faster behind bars. There are roughly 246,600 criminals who meet that definition who are incercerated in the U.S.

“We as a country are very trigger-happy in terms of throwing people into prison for very, very long sentences without thinking why,” Chettiar told mnsbc.com. “We need to introduce proportionality into sentencing here. Is the punishment fitting the crime?”

The report says there is “overwhelming evidence” that prisoners 50 and older are far less likely to return to prison for new crimes than their younger cohorts.

The ACLU report recommends that states grant elderly prisoners access to a parole hearing, during which a parole board or similar body can evaluate whether the prisoner can be safely released.

Last year, Louisiana passed a bill that allows prisoners to go before a parole board upon turning 60, provided they meet certain criteria, including that they were not convicted of violent or sex-related crimes. Chettiar described that legislation as “an excellent first step.”

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James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, said the idea of early release for elderly prisoners isn’t new. “An argument certainly can be made that most offenders over age 50 no longer pose risk given their stage in life,” he said.

But Fox said age should be just one consideration in determining eligibility for release. The more important indicators are the type of crime committed and how long the inmate has been behind bars, he said.

”There are scenarios that are so heinous in nature that they forfeit their right to live free regardless of their life cycle,” Fox said.

As an example, he cited the case of “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz, now 59, who remains behind bars for killing six people and wounding several others in a series of shootings that terrorized New York City in the 1970s. It's unlikely society would look favorably on his early release, Fox said.

Professor William Alex Pridemore of the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University said in an email interview that releasing inmates may not be a popular action to take. However, he said, “the public must understand ... that those selected for release would not only be older, and thus much less likely to commit further serious crime, but also would possess lower risk profiles based on their behavior while incarcerated."

He added: "The public is also beginning to understand, especially in these austere times, that prison is an extremely expensive option. It costs tens of thousands of dollars per year to house the average inmate, and these older inmates are not average. Elderly inmates are more likely to have health problems, which increases substantially the economic burden on taxpayers. More generally, rates of infectious disease like TB and hepatitis are very high in prisons, and very expensive to treat."

A victims’ advocacy group said any proposal for early-release program must take into account those who have been hurt by crime.

“The primary concerns surrounding any form of early or premature release of convicted criminals involve decisions made without any consideration or consultation of victims,” Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, said in a statement to msnbc.com.

“Such survivors of seemingly ‘lesser’ crimes commonly suffer the deepest losses because of crime. We owe it to victims to recognize how that release impacts them.”

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