Older Prisoners and Overcrowding

Given my testimony today in the House Judiciary Committee on prison reform and older prisoners, I thought this previous column may be of interest. 

For today’s testimony, click here

An `old’ prison solution

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s declaration of a “state of emergency” has finally caused members of both parties to face a state prison crisis more than three decades in the making. In 2003, I reviewed the California prison system at the request of a joint committee of the state Senate and Assembly. Like experts before and since, I found a developing crisis of unparalleled dimensions. 

There are 172,000 prisoners in the state system; it’s likely to surpass 193,000 by 2011. It is a system in cascading failure. Local jails have had to release felons early because they are backed up with prisoners who cannot be moved into state prisons.The situation is even more dire in those state prisons. Overcrowding has turned the system into a massive warehousing of humans. Inmates are stacked three high in cells and housed in hallways and converted gyms; rehabilitation and work programs have been eliminated to make room for bunks. Some prisons are 200% to 300% over capacity. In 29 out of 33 prisons, crowding is so extreme that prisoners are, according to the state, in “extreme peril.”

In order to preserve basic living conditions and make room for incoming prisoners, correctional officials have to “rent” cells from other states. This is hardly a long-term solution, as prison officials admit. It is akin to solving overcrowding in your apartment by continually putting stuff into storage — it is merely an illusion of progress with compounding rental bills.Perhaps the only positive aspect of this crisis is that it will force California’s leaders to end years of denials. It is no longer a question of whether prisoners will be released, but which ones. This is a decision that must be made on the basis of societal and not political risks.

We must make risk-based decisions that select the lowest-risk individuals for release. Under the current system, California has the nation’s highest recidivism rate; a staggering 70% of inmates commit new crimes within three years of release. Although mistakes are inevitable, the science of predicting recidivism has come a long way since the days of phrenology, or measuring heads to predict criminal inclinations.Among the various factors, the most reliable is age.As a general rule, people become less dangerous as they age. In males, the greatest drop in recidivism occurs around age 30 and tends to continue to fall.

In addition to their lower risk, older prisoners impose much higher costs on the system. Because of maintenance and medical costs, the average cost of an older prisoner is two to three times that of a younger prisoner.Many years ago I created the Project for Older Prisoners, or POPS, to deal with the nation’s rising population of older and geriatric prisoners. In California, the number of prisoners 55 and older has doubled since 1997. Today, there are almost 20,000 prisoners over 50, including 717 over 70.The worst is yet to come. The reduction of parole and increased sentences have produced a large, stagnant group that is now entering middle age like a rabbit moving through a snake.

To make matters even worse, studies have shown that prisoners are physiologically 10 years older than they are chronologically. Inmates are becoming more demanding and costly because of their physiological age, producing ballooning hidden costs.

In 2003, POPS proposed a risk-based approach in dealing with the state’s burgeoning older prisoner population. The basic components are:

* Establishment of POPS programs through law schools — a move recommended years ago by the governor’s task force. POPS students are trained to identify and evaluate low-risk prisoners within the system.

* Creation of a system for the supervised release of low-risk, high-cost prisoners.

* Creation of alternative forms of incarceration for mid-risk prisoners. Many prisoners can be placed into electronic bracelet programs that can reduce the daily costs of incarceration from $65 a day to roughly $10.

* Establishment of geriatric units for high-risk, older prisoners. More than 50% of the costs of maintaining prisoners are attributed to the salaries and packages of correctional officers. Decrease the number of guards, you decrease the per capita cost of inmates. Although a geriatric prisoner may still be a risk for a given category of crime, he is unlikely to toss his walker over a razor-wire fence or outrun perimeter guards.

Such a system can lower costs, improve care for inmates and reduce crime by making room for more dangerous, younger prisoners. For example, by placing older prisoners into special units, the state can slash medical costs by having staff trained to recognize and deal with gerontological disease before they become acute conditions.Such a system could result in the removal of hundreds or even thousands of prisoners from the system — quickly. Although politicians love to speak of fighting for victims, they have refused to act to prevent people from becoming victims in the first place. If California leaders want to be “tough on crime,” they will have to make tough decisions. If they are finally ready, they should look first to their aging prison population.

Jonathan Turley

Los Angeles Times

October 7, 2006

7 thoughts on “Older Prisoners and Overcrowding”

  1. I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everyone else
    encountering problems with your site. It appears as though some of the text within your content are running
    off the screen. Can somebody else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to
    them as well? This might be a problem with my browser because I’ve had this happen previously.

  2. POPS is JT’s invention and is law school based- as per the articles above and below.


    Each year, some 200 second- and third-year law students, under the direction of the Law School’s faculty, provide free legal services to more than 2,000 mostly low-income or elderly Washington-area residents through a variety of community clinics. As Jacob Burns, a GW Law School alumnus and benefactor of the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics Program, once remarked, “More often than not, the people who come to the Community Legal Clinics are caught up in situations vital to them, but over which they have no control. They come to us because they don’t know what else to do and cannot afford a lawyer—and the Law School is there to help.”

    Administrative Advocacy Clinic/
    Advocates for Older People
    Students provide services for indigent and elderly Washington residents who are pursuing their entitlements to various government rights and benefits before local and federal agencies and courts.

    Civil Litigation Clinic
    Students certified by the Washington, D.C., court system counsel clients, draft pleadings, prepare cases for trial, conduct examinations of witnesses, and argue cases under the direction of the clinic’s supervising attorney. Students may handle many types of civil and family matters, including small claims litigation, property disputes, and a full range of domestic relations cases.

    Consumer Mediation Clinic
    Students in the Consumer Mediation Clinic assist local consumers from all income levels who are involved in disputes with area businesses. The law students act as neutral mediators who help consumers and businesses reach negotiated settlements. The clinic’s D.C. Community Dispute Resolution Project provides mediation services for residents involved in a variety of interpersonal disputes—work related, neighbors, and family members. Students in the Mediation Clinic are trained to co-mediate these cases referred to GW by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

    Domestic Violence Clinic
    The Domestic Violence Clinic represents clients seeking civil protection orders or their enforcement. These students also work with local public defenders’ offices on battered women’s self-defense cases and participate in a larger system reform project designed to improve community response to domestic violence, such as a court study, the monitoring of police practices, and the development of alternative resources for domestic violence victims.

    Environmental Law Advocacy Center
    Through the Law School’s Environmental Law Advocacy Center, which includes the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Environmental Law Clinic, the Environmental Crimes Project, and the Environmental Legislative Group, students work on a broad range of international, national, and local issues in areas ranging from environmental justice to community outreach programs.

    Federal and Appellate Clinic
    Students in the Federal and Appellate Clinic pursue direct appeals from criminal convictions in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and federal courts, as well as prisoners’ rights cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The clinic also conducts studies of appellate court procedures and practices, which have proven to benefit the local bar association.

    Immigration Clinic
    Indigent clients from around the world in asylum and deportation cases seek out the services of students in the Immigration Clinic. Students represent aliens in federal court, at the Board of Immigration Appeals, in immigration court, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The clinic represents aliens with criminal convictions, as well as incarcerated aliens.

    Project for Older Prisoners (POPS)
    Law students also work within the criminal process, particularly the prison and parole system, through Project for Older Prisoners (POPS). These students interview and evaluate low-risk older and geriatric inmates in obtaining parole or other forms of release from incarceration. POPS operates in five states—Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia—and the District of Columbia. To date, the program has secured the release of almost 100 inmates without a single act of recidivism on the part of those released.

    Small Business Clinic
    In the Small Business Clinic, students provide start-up legal assistance to area small businesses and nonprofit organizations. They may also work on community and economic development projects that provide legal support to individuals and groups—helping low-income people and communities avoid economic exploitation and dependency through self-help initiatives, such as micro-loans.

    Stipends and Fellowships
    In addition to its clinics, the Law School supports the community service efforts of its students by granting these students academic credits while they are working in judicial, governmental, and public service organizations. The school also underwrites students who take pro bono or low-paying public service jobs. By providing stipends and fellowships to support these activities, the Law School enables more students to enter public service while lessening the financial hardship that often comes with such service.

    Vaccine Injury Clinic
    Students in the Vaccine Injury Clinic represent children and other individuals who have suffered serious vaccine-related injuries and who are seeking recovery of damages in trial and appellate proceedings before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims by virtue of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act.

    POPS Program Gives a Second Chance

    GW law students apply their classroom instruction to the criminal justice system by working with prisoners looking into parole and other release options through the Project for Older Prisoners (POPS), a program designed to combat prison overcrowding and assist aging and disadvantaged prisoners.

    Since 1989, POPS has given guidance to more than 500 prisoners, making it the largest volunteer prison assistance project in the country. POPS prisoners are selected based on their age or medical condition. A student is then assigned to a case and visits with the prisoner to discuss parole or other incarceration options, such as prison health care facilities. Under supervision, the student conducts an extensive background analysis to determine the inmate’s recidivism. If the prisoner is considered a low-risk inmate, the student determines where the prisoner would live and how he would support himself upon his release. For higher-risk prisoners, students consider what prison nursing home facilities may be available to them.

    In addition to working with individual cases, students conduct research on legislative reform on both the national and state levels. The students conduct extensive examinations into the political and economic climate of the state, researching how legislation is passed in the state and what laws currently exist regarding prisoner release.

    © 2002 GW University Relations

  3. JT, is there anyone who can be an advocate for such a POPS program in VA, and if so, is that advocacy strictly limited to lawyers and law school students? This is a serious question, by the way, I didn’t know this program even existed until I read this column just now. If it is strictly limited to those within the law profession, how can the average non-lawyered citizen be more actively involved?

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