Right now, there are about 3,400 criminals over 50 years old in state prisons. Roughly half of them are classified as having "major or very major physical defects." The most decrepit ones can't walk. They either get around in wheelchairs or never move at all, except when nurses turn them over to keep bed sores at bay.
They are the most acute cases of a larger problem that Georgia lawmakers have created both for themselves and for taxpayers: The skyrocketing cost of caring for the growing class of Georgians known as "geriatric inmates."
The problem started, or at least took a drastic turn, when then-Gov. Zell Miller took "tough on crime" a step further than it's ever gone before in Georgia. His 1994 two-strikes-and-you're-out law mandates life sentences for those convicted twice for any of seven "deadly sin" crimes. In 1998, the state Board of Pardons and Paroles guaranteed more long prison stays by requiring inmates convicted of any of 20 other crimes to serve at least 90 percent of their sentences.
In 1995, 1,838 inmates over 50 were imprisoned in Georgia. Today, that number is around 3,400. It's projected to reach 5,500 in 2005.
It's not as if lawmakers aren't aware of the problems all those get-tough policies produce. In December 1999, the Governor's Commission on Certainty in Sentencing released a report that recommended allowing individual judges to hand out longer or shorter sentences on a case-by-case basis. Among other things, judges could hand out shorter sentences to older criminals not covered by the two-strikes law.
"It requires the judge to be more thoughtful ... to take the Department of Corrections' [financial burden] into account," says Rep. Jim Martin, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a member of the sentencing commission.
But the commission's recommendations went nowhere: No legislation was proposed, and no court moved to adopt the guidelines.
A Corrections Department report on Georgia's aging inmates last May should have served as a kind of "ahem" for lawmakers. The report found geriatric inmates serve an average sentence of 15.4 years and are 20 times more likely to need a medical bed. Their treatments range from prescription drugs to costly cancer treatments. Then, there's full-on care for invalids -- feeding them by hand, dressing them, changing their diapers.
The average inmate needs about $3,000 in healthcare treatment each year. Sickly prisoners who need 24-hour nursing care can cost up to $94,900 a year. (The department classifies geriatrics as at least 50 years old, because typical 50-year-old inmates have the bodies and health problems of 60 to 65 year olds on the outside.)
At budget hearings Jan. 18, legislators were shocked to learn how much money it costs to care for older criminals. Still, they're not willing to do anything about it.
"It's not a politically popular thing," concedes Rep. Mike Snow, one of the few lawmakers who questioned the department's $121 million healthcare budget. "If I put a bill in the Legislature, I'd be accused by my Republican colleagues of being anti-crime. I have to run against these folks who demand to keep people in prison for 90 percent of their sentence. But when it gets down to taxpayers' money, it might become more politically popular to do something. ... We need to probably get the court system to make changes in sentencing laws. We need to look at some of these older patients, and we don't need to spend so much money to take care of them."
Martin says the time may be nearing for lawmakers to take a closer look at two-strikes-and-you're-out. "If we see that [new sentencing guidelines] are working, and the public buys into it, it could be an opportunity to re-examine the two-strikes-and-you're-out law to determine if more appropriate sentencing guidelines are a better way to deal with the problem."
In the meantime, most lawmakers are essentially saying, "Don't bug us -- it's the Corrections Department's problem." And Corrections officials don't talk openly about solving the underlying cause of the skyrocketing healthcare costs. They simply focus on staying within their budgets by meting out the minimal care required by law.
"We'll meet our budget this year, but it's a challenge," says Corrections Department Health Director William Kissel. "We have to be extremely aggressive as far as managing our resources. We need to be sure to deliver healthcare in the most efficient way possible and be the best stewards of taxpayers' money."