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Elderly prisoners to pose major problems under three-strikes law
STANFORD -- Over the next five years, California's elderly prison population is likely to climb 300 percent and within 25 years be larger than the current 126,000 total of state prison inmates, according to a new report released Wednesday, Nov. 2.
Under the state's new "three-strikes" sentencing law, the estimated costs of incarcerating 126,400 felons over age 50 "are nothing short of staggering - as much as hundreds of billions of dollars," said Stanford University psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo, an expert on the psychology of imprisonment and violence.
"Concerns about violent crime are certainly justifiable these days," Zimbardo said, noting that "the United States is the most violent nation in the industrialized world. However, my research shows that the hidden costs of enforcing the three-strikes-you're-out¹ law are so enormous, so misdirected when applied to elderly offenders for non-violent crimes and so unlikely to reduce crime that Californians should call a balk on those pitching Proposition 184 in the Nov. 8 election."
Proposition 184 endorses the three-strikes sentencing law that the state legislature passed in March. If voters endorse the law as written, a two-thirds majority of the legislature then will be needed to make any future changes, such as those Zimbardo recommends. Zimbardo aims to reduce the number of elderly who would continue to be imprisoned if they are unlikely to commit violent crimes.
"The issue of long-term imprisonment of elderly offenders has largely been ignored in both cost and crime reduction estimates for the three-strikes law," Zimbardo said, which is why he gathered available evidence on what to expect from dozens of sources. His report is published by the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The center and its executive director, Vincent Schiraldi, have been active in the campaign against Proposition 184.
"Given that elderly offenders are so much less likely to commit new offenses coupled with the high costs of keeping them imprisoned, this report calls into question previous cost estimates and 'crime savings' predictions of California's three-strikes law," Zimbardo said.
Older prisoners cost three times as much
The best available studies indicate that the costs of imprisoning elderly felons will be approximately three times as high as today's average inmate costs with little or no benefit to the general public, Zimbardo said.
Currently in California, it costs taxpayers $21,000 a year to incarcerate the average inmate (who is 30 years of age). The average cost for inmates over 50 is expected to be triple that - in the range of $60,000 to $69,000, he said. The lower estimate for prisoners 50 or older was prepared by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency of San Francisco. The higher one for inmates 60 years or older was prepared by George and Camille Camp of the Criminal Justice Institute of South Salem, N.Y.
The sentencing law has "very costly flaws" in that it can be expected to lead to the long-term imprisonment of many older men who no longer commit violent crimes but do pass bad checks, join gambling pools at work or shoplift - petty, non-violent crimes that count as "third strikes," Zimbardo said. Recently, two older men, one in El Cerrito and one in Salinas, have been charged with third-strike felonies requiring a 25-year- to-life sentence - for shoplifting.
Tax bill could grow $300 per year
It is difficult to project a precise cost to the state taxpayer of three-strike sentencing, Zimbardo said, because some who are sentenced under the law's 25-year-to-life provision for their third felony conviction will be elderly for 25 years; others will die before the end of their sentence, and younger prisoners will become elderly for only part of the sentence.
A recent report by the California Education Policy Center in San Jose has projected the annual state corrections budget to rise from $1.5 billion today to $3.5 billion in 10 years, Zimbardo said. The Rand Corporation's analysis estimates it would rise to $5.5 billion with a projected cost of an additional $300 annually per taxpayer. Zimbardo argues those are minimal estimates. "Our estimates would be considerably higher over the next decades as more and more costly aged offenders fill prison beds and hospitals."
The graying of the prison population will occur gradually over time, he said, so the costs will rise with them, but with a relatively fixed state budget, these costs will most likely force reductions in other services, especially higher education, he said.
"Ten years ago higher education received two and a half times as much money as did corrections, but since then corrections has added more than 25,000 employees while higher education has lost a third that number," Zimbardo said. The prison population is projected to equal the student population of the California State University system six years from now.
Health costs major factor
Most of the added cost of imprisoning people over age 50 is for health care, he said, and for related costs, such as constructing jail cells to accommodate people in wheel chairs and preparing special diets.
"Current prisons will have to be revamped to satisfy laws about access for many more handicapped elderly," he said. This will include construction of new ramps, toilet facilities and bunk arrangements. The state may decide to build special prisons just for the elderly.
"In 1989, there were 100 coronary bypass operations on inmates nationally, and the correction policies require two correction officers to be assigned to watch them through their hospital recovery period," he said. "Imagine the expense of these surgeries alone when you have 126,000 inmates over age 50, making up a full 20 percent of the state's prison population."
Prison health care is notoriously bad, but laws require the state to meet care standards "of a quality higher and thus more expensive than these individuals get on the streets on their own through Medi-Cal," he said. An example of the type of judgment to expect, he said: A federal judge in Sacramento last week began fining the director of the California Department of Corrections $10,000 a day for failure to follow a 1990 plan to improve psychiatric care for 1,000 prisoners.
An estimated 80 percent of older Americans have at least one chronic health condition, but Zimbardo said that "older inmates tend to be sicker than other people their age when they enter prison, typically because of drug and alcohol abuse earlier in life, and there is every reason to expect that the stresses of prison life will impact on the already greater vulnerability to illness of the aged.
"We can expect them to suffer from more vascular, neurological, respiratory and endocrine disorders than non-institutionalized peers." They will cost more than younger inmates because "they will have more extensive vision and hearing problems, more problems with walking, require special diets and ultimately are more prone to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases."
More violence expected
Greater violence against prison guards, policemen and even the elderly inmates themselves can be expected, said Zimbardo, who is well known for his classic "Stanford Prison Experiment." In that 1971 study, college students adopted the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison - until the violence and pathology forced Zimbardo to terminate the experiment prematurely.
"Young men doing 10-year terms for drug convictions or other non- violent crimes will take out their revenge on weaker inmates or those without a support network in prison," he said. "Those victims are likely to be the elderly, especially those who have survived on parole on the outside for many years and in the process have lost their prison toughness and their former buddies."
Studies, including his own, indicate that prisons are "crucibles of socialization into criminality and violence for many inmates," and other studies indicate that young men commit substantially more crimes than the elderly, Zimbardo said.
Given the large costs and likely small benefits in violence reduction for the average Californian, Zimbardo said he believes the law should be amended to place a time limit on the inclusion of prior convictions, to eliminate juvenile convictions as countable prior "strikes" and to make the 25-year-to-life sentence only applicable to violent offenders. He also recommended a "less cumbersome and bureaucratized" process for the "compassionate release" of inmates who are extremely ill and dying.
Compiling the report, he said, also made him aware that the state needs a commission to oversee a "coordinated research program" or to at least bring together existing research on violence to better tackle ways of reducing it.
A more basic issue than the three-strikes law itself, he said, is the "piecemeal, political approach to criminal justice reform" that has led to the passage of more than 1,100 crime and crime control bills in California alone since 1977. In an atmosphere where lawmakers seek to "score points with voters by public displays of tougher-than-thou stances," he said, behavioral research has had little or no impact on the process.
"We need some group to integrate what is really known about violent crime in various categories. There is a real lack of connection between the higher education enterprise and the people making public policy, but also a disconnect within academia itself between research areas."
For example, he said, as a specialist on the social psychology of violence, he does not communicate regularly with - or read the journals authored by - researchers of violence in anthropology, sociology, criminology, economics and geography.
"We need an interdisciplinary commission to find out what we know, determine where it applies and find the gaps in research."
In recent years, Zimbardo has conducted studies on vandalism, police interrogation, aggression and anti-social behavior and has been part of a research team observing parole hearings at Vacaville Prison. He has been an expert witness in evaluating living conditions in San Quentin's "Maximum Adjustment Center" and he is currently part of an international team studying conditions under which men are trained to become torturers or death squad executioners.
Relying on "failed solutions," such as long-term imprisonment for growing numbers of young and old, Zimbardo said, "shifts the nature of Human Nature from a central core of concern, caring and compassion for our fellow beings to an internal landscape rife with spite, vengeance and dehumanization. In needlessly imprisoning the elderly for life-long terms, this three-strikes law breaks basic social bonds essential to the human condition to thrive, and thereby, further fosters a 'culture of violence' in the United States.²
EDITORS: Contacts for studies mentioned in this release include Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco at (415) 896-6223; George and Camille Camp of the Criminal Justice Institute in South Salem, N.Y. (914) 533-2000; Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, (415) 621-5661, ext. 724; and Peter Greenwood at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, (310) 393-0411.
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