Just Who Are We Punishing?

Geriatric prisoners' care bankrupting states

This week's Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine carries a compelling story about the astronomical cost of providing end-of-life care to inmates. Health care costs are up, yes, but a bigger problem is that the number of imprisoned seniors with deteriorating health is skyrocketing. "Dying on our Dime" focuses on California, of course, but the issue affects Minnesota taxpayers, too.  

Sentencing reform is the primary culprit. The state's 1994 three-strikes law mandates life sentences without parole for certain repeat felons, and these recidivists�42,240 second- and third-strikers as of June 2002�will inevitably grow old and die in prison. Other than parole, the only ticket out of prison is compassionate release. Designed to liberate inmates who have six months or fewer to live and no longer pose a public threat, this legislation has emancipated an average of only 12 people a year since 1997. Inmates sentenced to life without parole or death are ineligible....

Last year, state legislators passed a bill to open the compassionate-release program to permanently medically incapacitated prisoners, such as a prisoner who is a quadriplegic, in hopes of saving millions of dollars. The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office backed the plan. But Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it, arguing that the legislation lacked "any mechanism to return these prisoners to custody" if they either recovered or posed a threat to public safety.

I don't know what kind of miraculous recoveries Schwarzenegger envisions, but the Times story makes it quite clear that this isn't an issue of whether to release inmates simply because of their age.

Frank Parker wears a bright orange jacket marked Sight Impaired as he wanders behind his three-pronged cane from bed to bed, saying hello, changing the channels, delivering gossip from the units and offering comfort to the dying....

Now 72, Parker is serving 15-to-life for murdering a man who he believed was having an affair with his wife. His time in prison, 20 years and counting, has not been easy on him�or on taxpayers. So far, doctors have treated Parker for three strokes and two heart attacks. His surgeries include heart bypass, knee replacement and cataract, which left him blind in one eye. Parker gulps down 15 pills a day. He has been denied both parole and compassionate release while racking up, by his count, more than $1 million in treatment.

Read the rest of the thoughtfully reported story here.

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