Clemency for silver-haired cons is a golden cost-saver

With his re-election in hand, here’s an issue that aligns with Gov. Rick Scott’s zeal for government efficiency. .

Florida owns a reputation as Shangri-La for enjoying the golden years with a golden tan. Yet, our state not only attracts the aged; it ages its own in prisons. At the current rate, Florida’s population behind bars is on pace to be the nation’s oldest — bar none.

So says a new report by fiscal watchdog Florida TaxWatch. It warns taxpayers increasingly stand to be in the red as inmates gray.

To escape this trap, the group rightly urges lawmakers and Scott to thin the ranks of elderly inmates with public-safety-preserving reforms such as targeted clemency and compassionate releases.

Florida prisons are “largely becoming a repository for elderly prisoners serving extended sentences,” the report notes. How we got here is the broken record: a tsunami of tough-on-crime policies including mandatory minimum sentencing and parole-free sentencing. These laws got criminals off the streets — but left them to rust in prison.

Nearly 21 percent of Florida’s 100,942 inmates are 50 or older. TaxWatch estimates those numbers will spike to 30,000 inmates in 2018. That would mean the elderly would comprise one-third of the state’s prisoners.

Why should taxpayers care? Because pickpockets pale at making dollars disappear next to the costs of aging inmates suffering chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and emphysema. TaxWatch estimates aged prisoners accounted for nearly half of Florida’s $408 million prisoner health-care costs in 2012.

Put another way, annual health-care costs for under-50 inmates add up to about $2,500 per prisoner. For old-timers doing time, that figure more than quadruples — $11,000.

It’s a matter of simple math: Fewer sickly seniors mean less expense. And it’s a matter of the calendar: Inmates 50 and older are far less a risk to public safety and less likely to re-offend.

That’s why other states already are using, at least on a limited basis, compassionate release and geriatric parole for prisoners who meet certain requirements. And it’s why TaxWatch wisely urges lawmakers to adopt criteria to launch similar programs. It also suggests the state start an elderly prisoner-release program for targeted inmates.

Such reforms predictably provoke push back from the tough-on-crime crowd. Yet, the potential reward is considerable. Just a 1 percent decrease in elder inmates annually could save $67 million. Push it to 5 percent, and the gains soar to more than $300 million, TaxWatch estimates.

Felons doing time cannot beat Father Time. State leaders must realize that inmates growing grayer while taxpayers grow poorer is a prison from which judicious reforms offer an escape.

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