Friday, January 05, 2007

Seniors Imprisoned as Sex Offenders

SCI-Laurel Highlands
On January 3, 2007, National Public Radio aired, on its All Things Considered afternoon broadcast, a story entitled "Sex Offenders Fill Geriatric Wards of U.S. Prisons", by Laura Sullivan. It features a Pennsylvania correctional institution, noting that over one-third of the inmates at SCI-Laurel Highlands are sex-offenders.

The story can be read or heard online here.
In the geriatric ward of Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Prison, the floors are squeaky clean linoleum. The walls are painted in dull pastels. Dozens of inmates in hospital gowns line the hallways in wheelchairs, doing absolutely nothing.

Almost half of these men are sex offenders. They were once simply "dirty old men." Now, sex offenders in their 60s, 70s and 80s -- like the men here -- are a growing problem in the nation's prisons. Experts say it's the only crime that offenders are more likely to repeat with age. The result has been an explosion in the number of elderly men behind bars. * * *

There are only two kinds of inmates in this geriatric ward. Lifers, mostly here for murder, and sex offenders. * * * Most of the inmates are likely to die before their sentences run out.

The article considers why older men commit such crimes, what are the underlying mental problems, and how society & our prison systems should handle such offenders.

I considered these issues previously in my posting on November 22, 2006, entitled Seniors as Criminals & Convicts.

These problems deriving from long-term incarceration of seniors who commit sex offenses likely will grow. Effective January 1, 2007, changes to Pennsylvania law provide that sex offenders will have to spend more time in jail, together with paying more from their personal property related to their criminal acts. An article that I found on December 29th, entitled "Paying with Property", posted by CBS Channel 21 (Harrisburg, PA), reported about the new law:

Starting January 1 a sex offender's home and property could be confiscated if used to commit an offense against a child. * * *

[C]ounty district attorneys are welcoming a new state law that will allow them to confiscate property used by sexual offenders during the crime with the proceeds going towards future sexual investigations and counseling for the victims. * * *

The new law will also allow the use of GPS technology to track sex offenders, shorten the time an offender has to register under Megan’s Law to 48 hours after release, and increase the penalties for not registering. It will also increase the mandatory minimum sentences in such crimes, which would go from 5 years to 10 years for the first offense.

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Aging in jail presents issues that are not new, but are growing in cost & complexity. This was predicted in a July, 1987 article published in Psychology Today, by Sol Chaneles entitled "Growing old behind bars: the aging of our convict population brings with it special needs and problems that few of our prisons are ready to handle".

Opened in July 1996, in Somerset, PA,
SCI Laurel Highlands is operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections as a minimum-security institution for men. It is considered a "model facility" in its separate housing unit for older and/or geriatric male inmates.

This particular facility previously was mentioned prominently in two articles published by the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 6, 2005, entitled "Pa. prison population growing older, sicker, costlier" and "Proposal would let aged, ill out of jail".

The first article quoted Tennessee college professor Ronald Aday who wrote the book "
Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections" (2003), and then addressed the situation in Pennsylvania:
[I]nmates 50 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population.

"The number of older offenders participating in the criminal justice system will continue to accelerate," Aday wrote, "as the baby boomer population marches toward old age." * * *

As this trend builds momentum, so does the debate both inside the world of corrections and among lawmakers and academics about whether the country should continue to keep so many of its old prisoners locked up.

The cost of taking care of them is high and climbing.

At SCI Laurel Highlands, considered a model facility, the cost for one of the 111 inmates who need 24-hour nursing care is about $62,000 a year, nearly three times the cost for a regular prisoner.

All of which raises the question: Is it time to let at least some of these inmates go?

Many experts say yes.

After these articles appeared, a 46-member Advisory Committee of the Joint State Government Commission concluded its three-year study on these issues and delivered its Report to the Legislature on June 22, 2005, entitled "Report of the Advisory Committee on Geriatric and Seriously Ill Inmates". The opening paragraph of the Summary in that Report confirms the complexity & difficulty of the problems studied:
Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 149, Printer’s No. 2175, of 2002 directed the Joint State Government Commission to establish a bipartisan legislative task force and an advisory committee to study the geriatric and seriously ill inmate populations in Pennsylvania State correctional institutions and make recommendations to the General Assembly. Because the 46-member advisory committee could not reach consensus on recommendations for various issues, it decided to provide the legislative task force with a compilation of information, policy options and draft statutory language which may be reviewed should the General Assembly decide to address issues regarding geriatric and seriously ill inmates.
The full Report (260 pages) is available here in various formats.

The National Institute of Corrections made the Report available in its library
This report contains a "compilation of information, policy options and draft statutory language which may be reviewed should the [Pennsylvania] General Assembly decide to address issues regarding geriatric and seriously ill inmates" (p. 1). Sections of the report include: executive summary; introduction; health/hospice; mental health; geriatric and life-sentenced inmates; and victim wrap around program.
In the
House Daily Record for June 27, 2005, the Speaker of the House acknowledged receipt of the Report: "The Speaker acknowledges receipt of a report of the Advisory Committee on Geriatric and Seriously Ill Inmates submitted the by Joint State Government Commission pursuant Senate Resolution 149 of 2002."

The Report itself went on to become one of only ten research reports given an excellence award by the
National Conference of State Legislatures, announced on its webpage, 2006 Notable Document Awards Recipients.

August 24, 2006, in a Press Release entitled "Greenleaf Commends Task Force Members for National Award", Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf commended the members of the Advisory Committee on their production of the Report.

Now, in its new session, the Pennsylvania Legislature should consider the Report seriously.