- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

NELSONVILLE, Ohio Not many inmates were older than 55 when Robert Hershberger first went to prison as a teen-ager in 1945 for breaking into a store to steal cigarettes and money.
Now Hershberger, 74, who is serving a life sentence at the Hocking Correctional Facility for killing his second wife almost 30 years ago, is part of a growing population of older inmates nationwide.
"Whooo-ee, I seen a lot of change, and that's a big one," said Hershberger, who wears bifocals and has deep facial creases, a shuffling walk and short, cropped white hair. He occasionally winces from aches and pains.
"Oh heck, all that goes with old age. And, boy, am I old."
As prisoners age, the likelihood they will commit another crime upon release plummets, while taxpayers' cost of caring for them soars. But if they are paroled, not many services exist to help them adjust to life on the outside.
In 2000, more than 44,200 older offenders generally defined as 55 and older were in state and federal prisons, compared with about 19,160 a decade ago and roughly 6,500 in 1979, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In the past three decades, however, older offenders have continued to make up about 3 percent of all inmates because the entire prison population also has grown.
The nation's oldest inmates those older than 65 numbered about 15,880 when the 2000 Census was taken, still less than 1 percent of the nearly 2 million prisoners.
The numbers reflect an aging population, but also are unintended consequences of the "get-tough-on-crime" era when more people were sent to prison under stricter sentencing laws and parole requirements.
"The intention was not to have people get old in prison, but that's exactly what's happening and it's happening fast," said Cynthia Massie Mara, a health care policy professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Many analysts predict that within the next few decades, the 55-and-older age group will make up a much larger part of prison populations nationwide. In prison, 55 is older than on the outside, because criminals tend to age prematurely from poor diet, drugs, alcohol and lack of medical care before being locked up.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction predicts that by 2025, a quarter of its population will be older offenders. They currently make up nearly 10 percent of the state's 44,700 inmates.
A surge, analysts say, would force corrections officials to change how they care for these inmates and lawmakers to re-examine sentencing and parole laws.
"States and federal facilities that ignore this problem now are going to get to a crisis point where they need to do something," said Jonathan Turley, director of the Project for Older Prisoners at George Washington University.
Some inmates older than 55 have been incarcerated since committing crimes in their youth. Others have been in and out of prison for decades. But most older inmates are first-time offenders, said Herbert A. Rosefield Jr., a corrections consultant working with the National Institute of Corrections and the American Correctional Association.
Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based organization to reform criminal-justice policies, said courts do not have much discretion in sentencing anymore.
In the past, first-time criminals who were old or ill were sentenced to shorter prison terms or diversion programs.
"Judges and juries very rarely take age and health into account now. In many cases, they can't," said Joann Morton, a criminal-justice professor at the University of South Carolina.
Betty Tewell, a 75-year-old prison librarian who is just over 5 feet tall with long white hair and large round glasses, went to prison at age 68 for killing her son-in-law in 1995. She testified during her murder trial that he abused her while she was living with her daughter's family.
"Up until then, I hadn't even had a traffic ticket," the grandmother said while in her semiprivate room at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, where she is serving a life sentence.
"I was old when I got here," Tewell said, with a soft smile, her eyes filling with tears.
In the Kentucky State Reformatory, Creed Warren, 90, who can hardly hear, has served half of a 20-year prison sentence for rape and said he may die behind bars.
"It's just up to God. If He wants to keep me in here until the end, there's nothing I can do," Warren said, his speech labored and his voice raspy as he talked about his six living children. "They have a place for me to stay when I get out. If I get out."
The National Criminal Justice Commission estimates that confining and caring for such inmates costs taxpayers $69,000 a year per inmate, mostly because of medical costs. That's three times the roughly $22,000 it costs to lock up younger offenders.
The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives found in 1998 that more than half of all older offenders committed nonviolent offenses.
"We're certainly not advocating taking every one over the age of 55, putting them on a bus and dropping them on a street corner," said Barry Holeman, director of research and public policy for the Washington-based organization. "But we're allocating a large, large amount of resources for a group that doesn't need to be incarcerated."
Many victims would vehemently disagree, said Nancy Ruhe-Munch, executive director of the Cincinnati-based national advocacy group Parents of Murdered Children.
"So the inmates are old and they're elderly and someone needs to take care of them. But some of these families are old and elderly and in many cases the one person who would take care of them is dead or hurt," Mrs. Ruhe-Munch said. "They were promised truth in sentencing, so if an inmate [is sentenced to] life in prison, survivors believe they should be in for life."
That's why Hershberger, who is serving a life sentence for murdering his second wife, doesn't believe that he will be released when he is up for parole for the fourth time in March.
"Certainly I want to get out, but it will shock the heck out of me if they do let me go," Hershberger said as he shuffled through the prison halls cheerily heckling prison officials who call him "Hershey."
In 1987, former prosecutor Ronald Collins wrote the parole board saying Hershberger committed a "vicious cold-blooded murder" and never should be released.
Mr. Collins said recently that he still believes Hershberger should serve his full life sentence.
"We've got to remember Beatrice Hershberger here and she had a right to live, too," Mr. Collins said. "The offense committed against her was final. She doesn't get to get out. He shouldn't either."

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