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Compassionate Release Program Underused as Prison Populations Age: Study


Despite an aging incarcerated population, many states are failing to take advantage of compassionate release programs, according to a study by Families Against Mandatory Minimums. (FAMM) study. 

One reason is that the guidelines for compassionate release remain vague, says FAMM.

Even as state prison populations have declined, the number of prisoners 55 and older increased 400 percent over those two decades. That has left an increasing number of incarcerated suffering from chronic illness and adding to the cost to taxpayers of correctional health care.

 By 2030, prisons will host more than 400,000 people 55 and older, or up to nearly one-third of the population, the study found. 


According to the study, estimates indicate older prisoners cost between three to nine times more per prisoner to incarcerate than younger ones and that from 1976 to 2013, Medical Prison Care Spending jumped tenfold.


Experts link the growing price of state prison health care to the ever-increasing population of older prisoners with disabilities and chronic medical conditions, the study says. 


“The list of reasons for keeping men and women behind bars shortens as age and chronic or terminal conditions impose increasing physical limitations and emotional burdens on them,” the study says. 


While these individuals are vulnerable, they are also less likely to reoffend.


The study says that older prisoners experiencing severe medical, cognitive, or mental health conditions or terminal illnesses are the least likely to be rearrested or returned to prison. 


The report cites an eight-year study, which found that 13.4 percent of prisoners 65 or older reoffended after release. Conversely, 65.4 percent of those released before age 21.


However, the study found that 49 states and the District of Columbia provide one or more forms of compassionate release, although most states had vague or underused guidelines for release.

Iowa was the only state without guidelines, according to the report. 

 The report finds that most states require a prisoner’s condition to be so poor that they pose no threat to public safety.

 According to the study, other states provide a compassionate release to prisoners when they reach a particular age and have served some portion of their sentence. 

 When making the call, a few states consider the cost or difficulty of caring for very ill or dying prisoners, the report finds. 


But the report says an issue with tracking compassionate releases is that only 13 states are required by state law to keep track of and report the data, while few publicize the information. 


In addition, it takes time before any requests can process, which causes many to die before release or get denied after a long wait period, the report finds.


“Given that compassionate release review processes can eat up weeks or months, it is virtually impossible for a prisoner with a short time to live to survive long enough to hear the decision,” the study says. 


The report recommends all states adopt compassionate release rules, ensure that eligibility criteria are fair and just, publicize data and applications and provide planning for post-release. 


“It’s time to bring utility, efficiency, and above all humanity into a process that should reflect foundational principles of mercy and justice,” the report says. 


The full report can be found here.

James Van Bramer is associate editor of The Crime Report.

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