PA. PRISONS Elderly population continues to grow

Lawmakers are debating whether elderly prisoners should remain locked up.
SOMERSET, Pa. (AP) -- The state's population of elderly inmates is increasing and becoming more costly, a newspaper reported.
In Pennsylvania, the number of inmates ages 55 and older increased from 1,892 in September 2001 to 2,520 by last December, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in Sunday's editions. Inmates ages 50 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population.
Costs for one of the 111 inmates who need 24-hour nursing care at the State Correctional Institution Laurel Highlands in Somerset County are about $62,000 a year, nearly three times those for a regular prisoner, the newspaper reported. That facility was one of the first geriatric prisons in the country when it was converted from a state mental hospital in 1996.
The trend can be attributed partly to the aging baby boom generation, but the other major cause is the criminal justice system, according to some experts.
In the 1980s, many states abolished parole and passed three-strikes laws. And in the federal system, Congress imposed mandatory sentencing guidelines.
With the elderly prisoner population increasing, corrections officials, lawmakers and academics are now debating whether elderly prisoners should remain locked up.
"My take on it is that we have to have some balance," said Middle Tennessee State University professor Ronald Aday, who wrote, "Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections." "We need to use some common sense. How much punishment is enough?"
In 2002, state lawmakers asked the Joint State Government Commission to study the issue.
"It was clear that we had a growing geriatric population in our prisons at a growing expense," said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, chairman of the task force. "Some of these people are no longer a threat to society and maybe we could reduce these costs and find alternative settings for them."
The advisory committee hopes to have its final report by June. A draft recommends a system to release some old prisoners through the courts or the parole system.
The draft offers three main proposals -- allowing judges the option of granting medical release, creating mental health courts to place mentally ill inmates in outside institutions, and reinstating the possibility of parole for murderers serving life terms.
While there is general agreement on the first two proposals, the last is contentious, said Karen Haley, assistant general counsel for the joint commission.
Inmates released to family would save money, Haley said, but the answer is less clear for those released to care homes.
About three-quarters of geriatric inmates don't have families who can take them in or the resources to pay for their own care. Most would end up in nursing or personal care homes with Medicaid footing the bill.
The committee is still collecting figures on cost comparisons of keeping inmates incarcerated or releasing them to nursing or personal care homes. Haley said preliminary estimates indicated that releasing prisoners to other institutions would save only a few hundred dollars per inmate.

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