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Expanded parole for cost sake endangers lives

In the rush to make Louisiana’s correctional policy more efficient, policy-makers cannot forget the larger goal of preventing crime. How the state’s latest reform recommendations address parole of those with lengthy prison sentences illustrates the tension between these two desires.

The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force’s conclusions, formulated after over a year of study, largely have met with stakeholder approval. The only real controversy has come over a set of recommendations that would make lifers eligible for parole after serving 30 years in prison and reaching age 50, unless they were convicted of first-degree murder, and also recommending those serving long but less-than-life sentences gain parole eligibility after 20 years in prison and reaching age 45.

Proponents of these changes – Louisiana joins Mississippi as the only states denying such eligibility to those convicted of second-degree murder – argue that older prisoners exhibit far lower recidivism rates than the younger prison population. They also note that eligibility does not automatically means release; in fact, only a small portion of inmates granted parole come through the discretionary process where the subject must demonstrate contrition, good character, and ability to live outside the walls that may include having a support system in place.

Additionally, another set of prisoners (which often overlaps with those that fall under this “geriatric parole” category) with physical ailments the group also advocated for early release, called “medical parole.” In this case, proponents assert that these individuals, for obvious reasons, pose even less threat to society and perhaps could receive better care, or at the very least suffer less when among family and friends, if let out. Again, officials would vet individuals to ensure they would have better situations if freed than continuing to live behind bars.

Of course, cost considerations also play a role for both groups. Releasing geriatrics from supervision saves a bundle, and for prisoners with disabilities or long-illness the state could pass along much of the cost of care to the federal government, as they almost certainly would qualify immediately for Medicaid.

But to give cost anything close to the same status as imprisonment as a crime reducer subverts the whole mission of discouraging criminal behavior. Prison not only serves as a means to keep criminals off the street but also as a deterrent to criminal behavior. The latter works only by keeping convicts in prison to serve their full sentences.

Deterrence works only when credible in the minds of individuals tempted to go outside the system. Much more than the typical person, or even policy-maker, understands, those from environments more accepting of criminal behavior often operate with much first-hand knowledge of the criminal justice system, including imprisonment. In neighborhoods with higher crime rates, many families know of relatives or neighbors currently doing time, and they become aware of what that means and entails.

Granted, in the commission of serious crimes that especially includes those without premeditation, most criminals don’t consciously weigh the benefits with the cost of potential long imprisonment. For example, if somebody ends up convicted of murder-two because a petty argument escalated into deadly violence, in the course of becoming enraged the guy wasn’t stopping to think that he could get 30 years for that kind of crime if he didn’t get ahold of himself. However, in the back of his mind from his interactions with others, he may have a subconscious awareness that people with long sentences in Louisiana never get out and that if he lets things escalate that might become his fate.

And almost certainly a consideration like this someone consciously would entertain if thinking about something like armed robbery that went bad. In either case, the deterrent exists only because of the threat of being locked up and the key thrown away for the entire sentence’s duration. And if analysts have learned anything about the sitzkrieg against capital punishment that has slowed it to a crawl, if any executions happen at all in some states, a punishment loses its beneficial deterrent effects when belief sprouts that you can beat the sentence.

That makes geriatric parole a risky proposition, made even more so in that “geriatric” in the world of criminology means someone older than 45. It makes a world of difference in the mind of a young punk contemplating a serious crime if he thinks the worst that can happen to him is to be out at 45 as opposed to 55 or even never seeing freedom again.

Medical parole also carries risk, but different deterrence effects operate here. The only thing worse than staying in prison a long time is staying in prison a long time sick or disabled. No one thinks he’ll get sick or disabled, so that future consequences simply do not enter into calculations of present behavior.

Thus, medical parole does not alter crime prevention, meaning it may happen without adverse consequences to public safety. Yet if it must occur, it must happen in a cost-effective fashion with no chance of recidivism. Simple cost-shifting from state to federal governments does nothing to save the taxpayer money, who must pay for it regardless, and cannot justify applying the concept. Rather, only in instances where an inmate with a long-term, debilitating ailment would receive care less expensively regardless of which public institution pays should the state permit medical parole.

Therefore, policy-makers should dismiss geriatric parole entirely as a policy option for offenders with long sentences, and employ medical parole sparingly according to the above standard. Saving money does not provide sufficient rationale for the former compared to the its increased potential for lives permanently made more adverse or lost, and for the latter saving the state money as a justification doesn’t cut it when ultimately taxpayers get hit. As policy-makers consider such options, they cannot let dollar signs take precedence over innocent lives.

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