Sunday, November 15, 2009

Life Without Parole, But With Health Care

The rising cost of prison health care is due mainly to the aging inmate population according to an article I saw on CNN recently. To me this really wasn't news; is it any surprise that older people have more medical problems? Or that the prison population as a whole is older due to longer sentences? Not really.

This story interested me because the Supreme Court is now considering the issue of life without parole for juveniles.  The idea is that juveniles can be rehabilitated and should be given a second chance, eventually.  

I can't help wondering if this issue is coming up now in part because prison officials, and inmate advocacy organizations, are starting to realize the full cost of a system filled with "lifers".  They need more than just medical care.  They need physical accomodation (and security accomodation) for wheelchairs, quad canes, braces, pumps and other medical devicies.  They need nursing care for feeding, dressing and bathing.  They need psychiatric care for dementia and other age-related psychiatric problems.  Eventually, they need hospice care.

Medical parole, also sometimes called "compassionate parole", is available in some systems. But this is sometimes dependent upon a terminal illness with a six month life expectancy. And it's not always granted if the inmate's offense was particularly notorious or horrific.

It's good to periodically examine our sentencing policies, but I get wary of any mandatory sentence that's based on a class of offenders rather than on the offense itself. Singling out people with mental disorders, juveniles, the developmentally disabled (and yes, women automatically get classified as 'vulnerable' and less culpable too) makes me uncomfortable. Banning life without parole for a juvenile, simply because he is a juvenile, negates a host of sentencing factors that a judge should be allowed to consider. These cases are challenging and difficult, and sentencing decisions are best left to an experienced judge who has access to all the information in a given case.

If life without parole is banned for juveniles, the next step logically would be to reconsider long sentences for older inmates.  Should someone who is fifty years old be given a 30 year sentence? Given that the average life expectancy for an American is 77 years, that's an automatic life sentence.  What about someone with cancer or HIV, someone with a potentially fatal illness who is not immediately dying? Should we base a sentence on five year survival rates? Otherwise, we are giving a life sentence, without parole. If you ban mandatory life for juveniles, you need to reconsider sentences that are the functional equivalent to mandatory life.

It gets complicated but hopefully these are the issues that the Supremes are going to be thinking about.