Save millions by freeing sick, elderly convicts

By Thomas D. Elias

Sometimes it can take more than a decade for a completely sensible idea to catch on. So it is with what may be the single best money-saving idea in the preliminary budget proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

That idea, part of a Brown plan to appease a panel of federal judges, calls for the possible parole of several thousand convicts who are sick or mentally impaired, plus a new parole program for elderly prisoners. This is spurred by the judges’ demand for even more releases of state prison inmates than the 22,000-plus already returned to their counties.

That idea was first proposed to this column in 2002 by reader Ray Procunier, then a Grass Valley resident. Procunier, who died two years ago at age 86, was director of corrections in California under Gov. Reagan and during part of Brown’s first term in the 1970s. He also headed the prison systems of Texas and Utah.

“When Reagan was governor, we cut the prison population by one-third and there was no increase in crime, not even a blip,” Procunier said 11 years ago, responding to a column. “I guarantee I could cut down today’s prison population by 100,000 or more and not hurt a soul in the process.”

Among his chief suggestions was the wholesale parole of prisoners over age 55, regardless of the Three-Strikes law or their specific sentences. He would have kept murderers, rapists and other serious sex offenders behind bars unless they had serious chronic illnesses. These tactics alone, Procunier said, would cut prison costs by more than $4 billion – or at least $5 billion in today’s dollars.

Brown has made nearly the same idea a central point of his plan to comply with the court ruling on prison crowding, leaving the question of why it took so long for the idea to reach the surface. The most likely answer is inertia, plus the fear most politicians share of appearing soft on crime. That proclivity also helped produce Three-Strikes and an increase in the state’s prison population from about 25,000 in 1980 to 170,000-plus in 2008.

So far, as Procunier predicted, there has been no significant statewide crime increase as a result of the early paroles. That’s because national criminal statistics show most violent crimes are committed by persons in their teens, 20s and 30s, and very few by persons aged 55 or over.

And the cost of maintaining hospitalized inmates ranges between $68,000 and $125,000 a year, depending on where they are treated, significantly more than the $47,000 average for a typical healthy convict.

So far, 15 other states have begun expediting release of elderly prisoners, who can use pensions, savings, Social Security, welfare or other resources to cover expenses outside custody. Most ill inmates released early can be covered almost immediately by Medi-Cal under Obamacare, while the state gains prison space and saves the cost of posting around-the-clock guards in each prisoner’s hospital room.

That’s why the new Brown plan makes so much sense, both as a means of helping comply with the court order and saving many millions, perhaps billions, of prison dollars.