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Opinion: Pennsylvania Has Too Many People in Prison, And Far Too Many Elderly

John Hargreaves - May 14, 2020

The recent order by Gov. Tom Wolf to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons due to the COVID-19 outbreak is wise policy. It is also a wonderful opportunity to further address the cost of prison and prison health care.

Prisons are very similar to nursing homes in the sense that there is not a lot of social distancing and much of the prison population are also medically vulnerable. We know that about two-thirds of COVID-19 elated deaths in Pennsylvania were nursing home residents. Prisons, with their similar characteristics will be next.

We have too many people in prison. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s inmates.

This reduction ordered by Wolf has not led to an increase in crime. To further expand the order to include elderly inmates would be a great service to taxpayers and a welcome gesture of humanity to these senior citizens. Currently Dept. of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says 22 percent of the inmates in state prisons are elderly. That is over 10,000 men and women. By 2030 one third of those incarcerated will be over 55. Pennsylvania currently has no effective medical parole availability.

Older inmates need increased health care, and this comes at a staggering cost. As Sen. Lisa Baker has observed prison accelerates health complications. Many inmates did not have proper medical care prior to confinement so the prisons are obligated to get them healthy. We know that medical care for elderly inmates is two to five times more costly than for those not elderly. If these men and women could be treated outside of prisons the Dept. of Corrections would not be paying, and, in many if not most cases, these returning citizens would be covered by Medicaid or Medicare.

The Osborne Association’s research shows that those over 65 have the lowest risk of recidivism of any age group. Montclair State University did a study of juvenile lifers released in Pennsylvania due to the Supreme Court ruling of 2012 and found a recidivism rate of 1.4 percent.. We have approximate 5,100 lifers in Pennsylvania not subject to the Supreme Court ruling who will be in prison, in almost all cases, as commutation is exceedingly rare, until death.

The shutdown in Pennsylvania will reduce the income collected by taxes. One way to address this is to save some of the more than two billion dollars that we spend on the state prisons by having fewer inmates.

It is evident that showing these older Americans some compassion would not threaten the rest of us.

To read the article, click here.

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