Late in the game compared to other states, Massachusetts last month enacted a “compassionate release” law to alleviate the strain of caring for elderly inmates. The measure allows the prison system to release terminally ill or incapacitated inmates who are no longer considered a security risk.
The U.S. incarceration rate is at its lowest since 1996, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, but Human Rights Watch calculated that the number of federal and state prisoners ages 65 and older increased 94 times faster than the total prisoner population from 2007 to 2010. Huge bills loom for many elderly prisoners with chronic conditions such as Hepatitis C or who need 24-hour care such as diapering, washing, and therapy following a stroke.
Though the state stands to save millions of dollars by granting compassionate release, some cases may end up putting the same care burden on other state programs if a prisoner has no loved ones to foot the bill for needed medical care after release.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has since proposed new legislation that would disqualify at least 375 aging convicted murderers from compassionate release. Brendan Moss, a Baker spokesman, told WGBH-TV the administration wants such prisoners to “serve sentences that match the heinous crimes they committed.” Aging sex offenders would be eligible for release only through “detailed procedures established for those unique cases.”
The federal government has inconsistently implemented compassionate release, according to 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General. “The Bureau of Prisons does not have clear standards on when compassionate release is warranted, resulting in ad hoc decision making,” the report read.
The news is bleak, but with the right Christian action, it could jump-start a new form of prison ministry for the aging. —R.H.