The Case For Not Letting `Em Rot

Twenty years ago, Quenton Brown stole $117 and a 15 cherry pie from a convenience store in Morgan City, La. The then-50-year-old drifter was sentenced to 30 years in prison without parole--a rather harsh penalty for a man with an IQ of 51. But Brown served his time, 17 years of it, until he became the first client of the Project for Older Prisoners, or POPS. At 67, suffering from emphysema and bleeding ulcers, Brown was the perfect candidate for the nonprofit POPS, which tries to help elderly nonviolent prisoners gain freedom.

Since Brown's release in 1989, POPS has aided 50 other geriatric inmates win parole and has set up programs in five states, most recently Illinois, in July. POPS has been an innovative way for states to manage burgeoning prison populations with shrinking dollars. Corrections costs are second only to health care as the fastest-growing state budget expenditure. Since 1986, the tab for keeping criminals behind bars has exploded from $9.8 billion to $20.6 billion in 1992 (chart). Part of that increase is due to the high cost of caring for prisoners over the age of 55, whose annual upkeep can run as high as $60,000--three times that of younger prisoners who don't require as much medical attention.

PRESSURE. Money isn't the only reason states have considered POPS. Long-standing pressure from the courts to decrease inmate populations and improve prison conditions, such as health care and sanitation, have also played a part. All but four states have faced major litigation challenging overcrowding in their prisons. "It's not a question of whether someone will be released, but a question of who," says Jonathan R. Turley, the professor at George Washington University's law school who founded POPS.

So why haven't more states embraced POPS? The answer: fear. Lawmakers are afraid of appearing soft on crime and are loath to risk releasing a prisoner who may go on to commit another offense. States that use POPS tread carefully. "We don't just rubber-stamp POPS' recommendations," says John Taylor, warden at the Staunton Correctional Center in Staunton, Va. "We do our own reviews."

POPS tries to be discriminating: It represents only about 10% of the inmates it interviews. In addition to a minimum age requirement of 55, POPS only considers inmates who have served at least the average time for their offense and have completed tests that evaluate their likelihood to commit further crimes. Most corrections officials agree that older prisoners fare better on the tests. "They don't have the vim and vigor left to pillage the countryside," says John Wade of the Virginia Parole Board, noting that the bulk of crimes are committed by males between the ages of 15 and 24. One current POPS client awaiting parole is a 74-year-old double amputee who is half blind.

Before recommending parole, POPS representatives consult with victims to assess their views about an inmate's return to mainstream society. Prisoners who seemed like model POPS candidates have been turned down because of victims' objections. But if all goes well, POPS will help its clients obtain Social Security or find a job or will place them with family or friends. Quenton Brown, for example, has been working as a gardener in Tampa since his release. Turley, who runs POPS pro bono along with a handful of law students, says that as POPS gains momentum, he hopes to link up with corporations to find employment for some of these ex-convicts.

POPS will need all the help it can get. Prison populations are expected to balloon--especially in light of federal guidelines that keep criminals behind bars longer. Corrections experts predict that by 2000, the number of inmates over 55 could swell from less than 40,000 (about 3% of the total) to as many as 125,000. "The graying of America has also become the graying of America's prison population," says Paul Davis, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission.

Corrections officials point out that some elderly inmates languish needlessly behind bars simply because they have no advocates and no place to go. "Why are we wasting scarce resources on a population that is not going to be causing problems and has a better chance of making it on the outside?" asks Ed Koren of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

A good question, and one that such states as Florida and California, which have the largest inmate populations, are asking as they consider launching their own POPS programs. But for such states, POPS will have to wait while they weigh the project's money-saving allure against the political ramifications of opening prison doors too quickly.

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