The John Locke Foundation’s Agenda 2010: Crime and Punishment does an exceptional job of reducing the complicated criminal justice problems in North Carolina to a few easy-to-understand bullet-points. It also provides actual solutions to these problems — including reserving prison for violent and repeat offenders, adopting conditional post-conviction early release bonds, and expanding community courts for the mentally ill.
The Commonwealth Foundation published an article last month entitled “Being Tough on Crime is Not Enough.” In the piece, Commonwealth suggested a variety of ways that Pennsylvania could reform its parole, probation, and non-residential programs in order to trim its corrections budget. Last week, Commonwealth’s reform plan began to be enacted in earnest with the passage of Senate Bill 1161. The bill contains provisions for adopting new risk assessment instruments, addressing technical parole violations with graduated sanctions, and extending parole opportunities for non-violent offenders. SB 1161 was sponsored by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican who represents Montgomery and Bucks Counties.
Last month, The Washington Post ran an interesting story on the Deerfield Correctional Center, a geriatric prison in Virginia. Geriatric incarceration is extremely expensive. According to The Post, ”[i]t costs $28,800 annually to house an inmate at Deerfield, compared with the $19,000 it costs at most of the state’s medium-security prisons.”
Several states have rightly experimented with geriatric release programs, but these proposals must be approached with caution. In some cases, often involving sex offenses, prisoners did not become geriatric in prison — rather they entered as geriatrics. Reformers must also realize that there is a moral component in addition to the financial one. As a commenter on The Atlantic Monthly’s website wrote in response to the article: “Often the impact of the offender’s action reverberates in the victim’s life well beyond the time the offender serves. And often the only sense of vindication they feel is knowing that the person who hurt them will not only not be able to hurt anyone else, but will not be free to enjoy their ‘golden years.’”
None of this means that geriatric parole is a bad idea. It simply means that as with any parole program, thoughtful distinctions must be made between those whom society feels are deserving of parole and those whom it feels are not deserving.