In Maine our crime rates are declining, arrests are down, yet our prison population  continues to trend upward(with the exception of  this year of COVID when many courts were closed for extended periods.) Longer sentences mean our prisons have a disproportionate number of the aged.

Aging in prison has been the subject of extensive study in recent years. Adults age 55 years and older grew from 3 percent to 10 percent of the total state prison population between 1993 and 2013, representing a 400 percent increase in number. It is increasingly costly for correctional systems to respond to the needs of their geriatric populations, including their need for medical and mental health care.

Aging inmates experience chronic illness and disability at younger ages than the general population, beginning around age 55. The estimate for the additional costs of keeping aging inmates in prison varies. One study estimated for federal inmates that cost is doubled. A 2012 study of Louisiana’s costs estimated a five fold increase. Using the cost per inmate  provided by Maine’s DOC in hearings this session of $73,000/year, the cost to maintain aging inmates doubled would be $146,000/year or if multiplied by five  $365,000/year.

But we have an alternative. Aging is strongly correlated with desistance from criminal behavior as seen in MDOC’s recidivism rates by age. Current MDOC policy 27.2  allows for the confinement of terminally ill inmates or inmates with a severely incapacitating medical condition in a community setting like a nursing home or long term care facility or a private home. While this provision was widely used in the past it has rarely been used in the last four years.

Though an inmate remains in the care of the Department of Corrections even when confined in a community nursing home, the costs are considerably less and qualify for medicaid/MaineCare reimbursement. That same care provided in a MDOC facility is not covered by MaineCare.

The Department of Corrections estimates between 10 and 20 inmates would qualify for this program. Given the cost range quoted above the annual savings to the State of Maine could range from one and a half million to seven million dollars.

In 2018-19 the average per pupil cost in Maine was $12, 442.95. The savings from placing 10 -20 geriatric inmates in community confinement would pay for 120 to 560 students to attend public school for one year.

Maine’s state budget is finite. We must choose wisely. Many worthy projects go unfunded each year. Moving elderly inmates to community nursing homes is a sensible way to free up money to be used for more pressing needs.

— Special to the Press Herald

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