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Older, sicker inmates add to costs in Virginia jails

- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2011

RICHMOND — The number of inmates in Virginia age 50 or older has increased nearly sevenfold over the past 20 years, and the average cost of providing them with specialized health care was nearly seven times the average expenses for younger prisoners in fiscal 2010.

As the state's prison population grows older and sicker — and with many inmates ineligible for release because of the abolition of parole in 1995 — Virginia will be hard-pressed to find a way to pay for it all, corrections officials told Virginia's House Appropriations Committee on Monday.

The cost of off-site services, including inpatient and outpatient hospital treatment and specialty physician care, increased by 19 percent — or $8.7 million — from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011, not including pharmacy costs. The state spent about $54.5 million in fiscal 2011 on off-site health care services for inmates, up from $45.8 million in fiscal 2010.

The cost per capita to house an inmate in the previous fiscal year was about $24,000, corrections officials said. But at Deerfield Correctional Center, a special-needs facility in Capron with an average inmate age of 55, the cost was $29,600.

"What accounts for that is generally the medical care that is provided for those offenders," said N.H. "Cookie" Scott, deputy director of the Department of Corrections.

Although most medical-expense data are not available by age, per capita medical expenditures overall have crept up to $4,827 in fiscal 2010 — accounting for 15 percent of the department's operating expenses.

But what's striking is the breakdown between age groups. The average off-site medical expense for people in the age group younger than 50 last year was almost $800 per prisoner annually, while the average group expense for prisoners 50 and older was about $5,400.

The incarcerated population age 65 and older increased from 1 percent to 2 percent over the past 10 years and the 45-to-64 age group has increased from 16 percent to 26 percent. Meanwhile, the number of prisoners ages 25 to 44 has decreased from 66 percent to 59 percent of the population, and inmates younger than 25 have decreased from 17 percent to 13 percent.

As inmates live longer, facilities become more crowded.

"It's a challenge for all. I don't really know the real solutions to it," said Keith W. Davis, the Deerfield warden. "As a practitioner, I live this every day."

The center's population has expanded from 497 in December 2006 to an average daily population of 1,072 in December, and the assisted-living unit increased from 40 to 57 beds in 2009.

"It's not just a hospital situation. I've got folks climbing on top bunks," Mr. Davis said.

In 1995, the state abolished parole for felonies committed on or after Jan. 1 of that year, but a clause in state code allows for certain geriatric inmates not convicted of Class 1 felonies to apply for early release. Those inmates must be at least 60 years old and have served 10 years, or be at least 65 years old and have served at least five years.

The number of inmates eligible for geriatric release jumped from 339 to 653 from 2003 to 2010 — a 93 percent increase. Last year, 129 of 653 eligible inmates applied for geriatric release, but only nine requests, or 7 percent, were granted — mostly because of the serious nature of the crimes. Most inmates up for consideration from 2004 to last year committed either homicide or rape.

"The truth-in-sentencing provisions of 1995 will eventually phase out all discretionary parole, that decline beginning around 2016, but the geriatric-release population will continue to rise in the future," said William W. Muse, chairman of the Virginia Parole Board.

That notion likely will force legislators to revisit the issue. About 32,000 people are incarcerated in Virginia corrections facilities.

"I think we need to do everything we can to look at the population of elderly, nonviolent offenders, and if they present no threat to society, to get them out," said Delegate Robert H. Brink, Arlington Democrat.

Mr. Davis on Monday invited legislators on the House Appropriations Committee to visit Deerfield to see for themselves what he deals with every day.

"I invite people to come see," he said. "Seeing is believing."

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