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A more Cost-Effective Way to Deal with the Elderly Prisoner Boom

Will Bunting,
ACLU Fiscal Policy Analyst
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August 1, 2012

Under the Second Chance Act of 2007, for two years the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) conducted a pilot program to determine the effectiveness of placing eligible elderly prisoners on home detention (which includes detention in a nursing home or other residential long-term care facility) until the end of their prison terms. In December 2011, the BOP reported to Congress on the results of the pilot (the Elderly and Family Reunification for Certain Non-Violent Offenders Pilot Program). According to the BOP, the pilot achieved no cost-savings and actually imposed an additional $540,631 of costs above what would have been spent to incarcerate these inmates in BOP facilities. Specifically, the BOP compared the daily marginal cost to house an inmate in a minimum-or-low-security facility (estimated at $20.08 and $24.32 per day, respectively) with the regional average per diem paid to the private companies contracted to monitor inmates on home detention, which range from $34.86 to $47.76 per day.

Following the BOP’s report, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) undertook a review (pdf) that pointed out the limitations in the BOP’s evaluation of the pilot and its cost calculations, and cautioned that the BOP’s report should not be used to determine future policy decisions.

But even aside from the GAO’s review, we think there are options for early release of elderly prisoners that can indeed save taxpayer money. In fact, we wrote recently about some of the options available to state corrections systems in our report, At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.

In our report we detail how state governments could save substantial sums of taxpayer money – an estimated $28,362 per year per released aging state prisoner on the low-end – by actually releasing aging state prisoners, who pose no substantial public safety threat, through age-based parole programs. This sum takes into account the fact that some portion of released prisoners will turn to the state government for their healthcare or other needs. Importantly, these age-based parole programs seek to remove elderly prisoners from the corrections system altogether, placing them instead on parole or direct community supervision, which, on average, costs about $7 per day and $2 to $3 per day, respectively – far less, obviously, than the cost-per-day of home detention as defined under the BOP pilot program.

Of course, the options available to the federal government are different. While there is no parole in the federal system, the federal government could similarly save taxpayer money by revamping its elderly release program in such a way to allow for early release of aging prisoners who pose no substantial public safety threat; for instance, by encouraging the BOP to expand the use or scope of its compassionate release policy.

The BOP’s current policy of placing eligible elderly offenders on home detention until the end of their prison terms is very different, however, and is needlessly expensive in that these elderly prisoners are kept within the corrections system, at great expense to the American taxpayer, for the entirety of their imposed sentence. As our report argues, it makes much more sense from a fiscal cost perspective to allow elderly inmates to apply for early release than it does to transfer them to some kind of secured nursing home facility until the end of their prison terms. At $34.86 to $47.76 per day, this sort of detention is a very expensive option that the data suggest is simply not warranted.

In short, when it comes to the elderly prisoner population, the objective should be to get the aging prisoner out of the prison system altogether, and not simply to re-imprison him or her in a secured nursing home or other facility, which may or may not be less costly than minimum-or-low-security prison facilities. While these reentry programs may be of substantial value in other ways, they are obviously not going to yield the same kind of fiscal cost-savings as an early or conditional release policy that does not simply transfer prisoners from one facility to another, but actually reduces the total prison population by empowering government agencies to grant conditional release to elderly inmates who no longer pose a sufficient public safety threat to justify their continued incarceration.

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