The State of Aging: Prisoners and Compassionate Release Programs

In this photo taken Monday Aug. 13, 2012, Betty Smithey, the country's longest-serving female inmate, listens to Donna Leone
In this photo taken Monday Aug. 13, 2012, Betty Smithey, the country's longest-serving female inmate, listens to Donna Leone Hamm, a Director of Middle Ground Reform, on left, and her attorney Andy Silverman asking Arizona's Board of Executive Clemency in Goodyear, Ariz., to let her out after 49 years served for a 1963 murder. The board granted her an absolute discharge. (AP Photo/The Republic, Nick Oza)

When 69-year-old Betty Smithey was released from Arizona State Prison last week after serving 49 years for murdering a 15-month-old child, walking with a cane, she gave a face to a population that often goes unnoticed -- the aging men and women in our prison system.

With some 246,000 men and women over 50 in America's overly stretched prison system, should we as a society consider releasing the fragile, the ill, and the dying among these prisoners?

In theory, we already have. Compassionate, medical, or geriatric prisoner release laws have been around since the 1970s in the U.S. But the reality is that while such programs currently exist in 41 states, they are rarely if ever used. From 2001 until 2008, Colorado released just three prisoners under its compassionate release policy. Oregon has never released more than two prisoners per year and as of 2009, Maryland and Oklahoma had never released a single prisoner under their geriatric release provisions.

The reason behind such sparing use? Politics. Public opinion is often against such programs and their narrow eligibility criteria and complicated bureaucratic procedures (including a lengthy referral and review process) often deter prisoners from applying in the first place.

In the meantime, our elderly prisoner population continues to grow at an alarming rate, forcing our correctional system to act as a nationwide long-term care facility -- something it was never designed to be.

Historically, the U.S. legal system approach to incarceration has ebbed and flowed between two attitudes -- compassionate and punitive. In recent decades, stricter sentencing laws and the resulting long-term confinement of older adults have produced nothing less than a morally and financially expensive humanitarian crisis.

In the United States, current estimates suggest that older adults cost about three to five times more than their younger counterparts. The average annual cost of care for the typical prisoner is approximately $5,500. From ages 55 to 59 however, that price tag doubles to $11,000, and it goes up nearly eightfold for prisoners aged 80 and over, to $40,000.

Many of these prisoners languish behind penitentiary walls in an environment designed for younger more healthy inmates. The culture of gangs and violence typical to prisons is particularly hard on the elderly. Even the most basic of activities, such as walking at a steady pace or dressing oneself, can be difficult without assistance -- something not every prison has the budget for or enough well trained staff available to provide.

But what about public safety? Offenders who reach old age present lower levels of danger to the public and are less likely to recommit crimes, compared to their younger counterparts. A recent American Civil Liberty report documented low rates of recidivism among older people, including those convicted of violent crimes. Some are too ill even to remember their crimes, or no longer have the capacity to commit a crime. The use of risk assessment programs can also be used to determine the level of risk to personal and public safety, screening out those considered still a danger to society. These combined characteristics bolster the argument for alternative sentencing and the leveraging of compassionate release programs for older adults in the criminal justice system.

Once released, community service agencies including hospitals, community health centers, nursing homes, and hospices, will need to open their arms to this population, especially the terminally ill nearing their end-of-life.

Yes, the associated financial costs will transfer to other agencies and organizations - but at least these organizations are equipped to assist the elderly. By releasing non-violent elderly prisoners into their care, we can prevent the bankrupting of our collective budgets and of our collective souls.

Deciding what to do about an aging prison population is complicated, not to mention a bureaucratic mess. But we can no longer afford to ignore it. We must consider the dignity of every person -- including the imprisoned.

It is time to open our blind eyes and impoverished hearts and hear the cries of agony and misery of our fellow human beings with mercy and forgiveness. In the words of Buddha--"To forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you."

Tina Maschi is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

For more on aging in the criminal justice system, see here.