Faced with a $23 billion shortfall in its 2011-2012 budget, Texas officials nevertheless have refused to take advantage of a potential money-saver: paroling state prisoners who are elderly, infirm or terminally ill, who pose little threat to public safety.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank, estimates that $76 million per biennium could be saved if parole officials would grant medical parole to the backlog of more than 1,000 terminally ill or extremely disabled prisoners who have applied for early release.
“We’re not saying everybody” should be granted medical parole, said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the TPPF. “We’re just saying there’s room to expand the use of this.”
Undoubtedly the TPPF is correct. In fiscal year 2010, 1,443 prisoners applied or were referred by medical personnel for medical parole consideration. Of those only 428 cases were referred to the parole board by the Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments for release on medically recommended intensive supervision, and a mere 102 were granted medical parole. During the same time period, 159 of the 1,443 prisoners who had applied or were recommended died while incarcerated.
The 102 prisoners approved for medical parole in FY 2010 included 54 with terminal illnesses, 46 requiring long-term care, 1 who was mentally ill and 1 elderly prisoner.
Although the rules for medical parole require that prisoners be mentally ill or disabled, at least 65 years old, physically disabled or terminally ill, and mandate virtual house arrest for those who are released while excluding sex offenders unless they are in a vegetative state, some still oppose the concept.
Explaining his opposition to medical parole for prisoners convicted of violent crimes, William “Rusty” Hubbarth, an attorney and vice president for legislative affairs for Justice for All, a victims’ advocacy group, used the case of Monty Lamb as an example.
Lamb, convicted of a triple homicide, was serving a life sentence. He had no record of violence while incarcerated and a psychologist had determined he was not dangerous. His family was also attempting to prove his innocence. Lamb was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and died while awaiting a decision on his application for medical parole. But Hubbarth thinks he shouldn’t have even been considered.
“In the case of a triple murderer, no, I don’t think he should be surrounded by the love and concern of his family and have a comfortable death,” Hubbarth stated. “I do not think he deserves that.”
Some prison officials also question the reasoning behind medical parole. “I’ve had friends who died, and two weeks before that have gone to Las Vegas on their last hurrah,” said Dee Wilson, director of re-entry and integration for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, explaining that terminally ill prisoners may still be capable of committing crimes.
Mistakes made in issuing medical paroles are rare. Texas prisoner Frank Gonzales, Jr. received a medical parole in 1997 after he became wheelchair-bound due to a muscle disease. Nonetheless, he was subsequently involved in a robbery that resulted in the death of a taxi driver. In 1998, Steve Russell, who had been convicted of financial fraud, used laxatives, a fake AIDS diagnosis and a forged medical document to obtain medical parole.
Such incidents, although exceptional, may help explain the limited number of medical paroles in Texas despite the state’s budget crunch.
“People are afraid to make that kind of decision,” said University of Texas at Dallas criminology professor James Marquart. “They’re going to err on the public safety side until proven otherwise.”
Yet some lawmakers have questioned the cost of keeping prisoners who are severely disabled or dying behind bars when they could be safely released.
“It’s nuts to me,” remarked state Senator John Whitmire. “I do not think that element poses a public danger, and it would be a tremendous savings.”
Unfortunately the situation has not improved; in fact, the grant rate for medical parole in Texas is getting worse. According to the most recent data, 1,807 elderly and infirm prisoners applied or were recommended for medical parole in fiscal year 2011. Just 349 cases were presented to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and only 100 prisoners were granted release. Of those released, 49 were terminally ill while 4 were classified as elderly.
In October 2012, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) highlighted the case of state prisoner Donald Carl Rash, 62, serving a 23-year sentence for robbery. Rash suffers from diabetes, chronic chest pain, spinal disorders, hepatitis C, hypertension and PTSD from his military service in Vietnam.
Although he can barely stand or walk, his petition for medical parole was denied. “It’s a shame because, as a veteran, the VA would pick up all of Mr. Rash’s healthcare costs, and will even help him with housing,” said Michelle Smith, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the TCRP. “Locking up Mr. Rash might be ‘tough on crime,’ but it isn’t ‘smart on crime.’” She called Rash “a shell of a man” and “barely alive.”
The TCRP noted that the 10 state prisoners with the most expensive medical needs cost Texas taxpayers almost $2 million a year. If more prisoners with serious health problems were released, the cost of their care would be covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the Veterans Administration.
According to the Legislative Budget Board, Texas could save $10,545 per year, on average, for each paroled prisoner who requires expensive medical treatment. And with regard to elderly offenders, recidivism rates for prisoners decline as they grow older and “age out” of crime-prone years, making them good candidates for release.
“It doesn’t make any sense to keep seriously infirm and dying offenders behind bars,” observed Matt Simpson with the ACLU of Texas. “The costs to the state are exorbitant, and with recidivism rates among this population so low, parole is a less-expensive, safe, and more humane alternative.”
Rissie L. Owens, chairwoman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, said public safety is paramount when making parole decisions. “We’re looking to see if that person, considering their medical condition, if they are a threat to society,” she stated.
Past legislative efforts to increase the number of prisoners released on medical parole have failed, with opposition being voiced by some prosecutors. However, Senator Whitmire indicated the legislature may need to revisit the issue.
“We could save millions of dollars and not compromise public safety one bit,” he said. “These are criminals who at one time were dangerous, but who now pose no threat to anyone because of their health conditions.”
Sources: Dallas Morning News; Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Annual Statistical Report FY 2011; www.texascivilrightsproject.org; www.aclutx.org; www.statesman.com
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