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Archive for Sunday, March 31, 1996

AGING PRISONERS COSTING TAXPAYERS

March 31, 1996

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Keeping criminals behind bars is costing more money as they get older and remain in prison longer.

Larry Frames doesn't have a job, but he does have quality health care and a roof over his head.

Since 1970, Frames, 49, has been a resident of the Lansing Correctional Facility, where food, housing, heart surgery and care for his diabetes are provided to him by the state of Kansas. Since his double bypass, Frames hasn't been able to give the state much in return.

"I ain't doing nothin' but layin' on my butt," said Frames, who is serving time for murdering a 15-year-old Olathe girl when he was 24.

Frames is just one of a growing number of aging Kansas inmates forcing the state to spend more tax dollars on the increasing cost of incarceration.

With longer, more specific sentences mandated by state sentencing guidelines, corrections officials expect to have an increasing number of aged inmates like him in coming years.

"We anticipate that over the course of the next five to 15 years, the number of inmates who are over 40 or 50 will continue to increase and that the overall age of our population will grow," said Bill Miskell, spokesman for the department of corrections.

In fact, the average age of Kansas inmates already has been on a steady rise for the past decade. In 1986, the majority of inmates were under 27. In 1990, the average age was 29.6, and in 1996, it was 30.7.

As the age and overall inmate population has grown, so has the cost of taking care of them.

From 1990 to 1996, the inmate population rose by 18 percent -- from 5,677 inmates to 6,926. In the same amount of time, annual medical costs for inmates skyrocketed -- rising 36 percent from $10.6 million in 1990 to $16.6 million for the current fiscal year. The yearly cost is a fixed amount in a contract with a private provider.

Today the average yearly cost of housing an inmate is $18,730, and the average cost of their yearly medical care is $2,359.

Corrections officials said the rising costs reflected the same health care woes the rest of the world is witnessing. They also said adding facilities in recent years to house a growing number of inmates has helped hike costs.

"I think medical costs for everyone continues to increase," Miskell said. "A part for us, a significant part, is that we opened two major correctional facilities. When you bring new facilities on line and your inmate population increases, you're going to have to provide for new people in new facilities. But had population and facilities remained constant, the cost of health care still would've increased. There is no doubt about that in my mind."

Though states across the nation are lengthening sentences and building prisons in the effort to get tough on crime, some officials say public resources could be better spent.

State officials are spending more on incarceration while at the same time cutting costs of programs that would help prevent crime -- such as education and early childhood intervention, said Forrest Swall, a social welfare professor at Kansas University.

"The public believes this will impact on crime, but states with the highest rates of incarceration still have the highest rates of crime," Swall said. "It becomes really interesting when we see cutbacks in programs that help low-income youth attend institutions of higher education. In Kansas, like other states, there are more college-aged black males in prison or under supervision than in institutions of higher education. What that suggests is that we have a greater commitment to prisons than education."

At the same time the average age of inmates is rising, another trend may contribute to rising incarceration costs. The number of older newly admitted inmates in state prisons has been on a steady rise. In 1986, only 34 percent of new inmates were older than 30, but today, 46 percent of those entering state prisons are older than 30.

According to department of corrections data, eight of the 10 oldest male inmates -- who range in age from 73 to 81 -- entered prison within the past three years. Seven of the 10 oldest female inmates entered prison in the past three years.

Some criminal justice experts say more older inmates may be coming into prison because sentences now are tougher, and while they may have gotten a community-based punishment a decade ago, today people want them behind bars for the crimes they commit.

Though the rising age of Kansas inmates likely will continue to cause costs to increase, public sentiment about incarceration isn't likely to change, one expert said.

"We punish for retribution," said Ted Heim, a professor of criminal justice at Washburn University, who once worked in corrections for many years. "People who believe strongly in that are not going to be swayed by the cost. But we're well advised to use prisons as a scarce resource and keep people as taxpayers rather than tax consumers whenever possible."

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