MONTPELIER >> Legislation pending in Vermont would let officials take into account the ages of the state's oldest inmates when deciding whether they should be considered for early release.
Vermont's population of inmates aged 60 or older more than doubled from 41 in 2005 to 96 in 2015, according to figures from the state Department of Corrections. Older prisoners are considered less risky than their younger counterparts and much more expensive to care for, said Lisa Menard, the department's commissioner.
As of this past week, Vermont's oldest male inmate was 90; the oldest female was 69. Menard said she was barred by department rules from identifying them.
The Pew Charitable Trusts reported that as of 2011, Vermont was tied with Oregon as having the largest share of their inmate populations — 14 percent for both — 55 or older.
The Vermont House this past week passed and sent on to the Senate a bill that would allow "compassionate release" of some elderly and infirm inmates. Two classes of inmates could apply for parole before serving their minimum sentences: those 55 and older who had served as least 10 years of their sentences; and those 65 and older who had served at least 5 years. Both would have had to have completed programming provided to prisoners. Prisoners with serious medical conditions also could be released.
Nearly all states and the federal government have such compassionate release programs on the books, but in many places they are used rarely, said Tina Maschi, an associate professor in the graduate program for social service at Fordham University in New York. The result is that many elderly inmates die in prison, as, according to Menard, one 79-year-old man has in Vermont already this year.
"The large number of older people in prison is partially attributed to the passage of stricter sentencing laws, such as 'three strikes and you're out' and subsequent longer prison terms," said a study published last year by Maschi and other authors.
Health problems common to older people present a big administrative problem and cost driver in prisons.
"There are significant medical issues that generally arise, there are mobility issues," Menard said. "There are in some cases dementia-type issues, cognitive functioning issues. In a facility all of these things present additional challenges as far as housing. Where is the best and safest place in a facility to house somebody who has mobility issues, can't handle stairs, can't climb up onto a top bunk in a facility, may have trouble remembering meal schedules or rules?"
Prison systems have been taking on new costs to respond to the needs of elderly inmates. The Southeast State Correctional Facility in Springfield maintains a small hospice unit for prisoners in their last days, Menard said.
An American Civil Liberties Union report in 2012 found that federal and state governments spend a combined $16 billion a year to house older inmates, most of who could be released without increasing risks to the public. State prisons were housing 246,000 inmates age 50 and older around the country, the report said, adding that the number was projected to grow to 400,000 by 2030.
While the cost of caring for elderly inmates with health problems is one motivating factor, Menard said another is "looking at it in a compassionate way toward the offender. Is this the place somebody should be spending the end of their life?"
Cara Cookson, policy director with the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, said victims' advocates had concerns with the bill initially, but she said the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, which drafted the measure, had added enough safeguards so that her group is now supporting the measure. Among those safeguards: that the Parole Board would still have final say over whether an inmate is released early. The initial bill called for inmates seeking compassionate release to have their request reviewed by a judge.