Cost of Old Inmates Cripples State; STAYIN' IN Many Sentenced to Life as Young Adults Are Now Nearing Middle Age as State Prisoners; Those over 65 Cost Nine Times More Than Younger Inmates. MOVIN' OUT State Has Started Seeking out Ones Who Could Be Released on a Medical Pardon

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Byline: WALTER C. JONES

ATLANTA - As state officials learn to cope with the reality of long-term budget difficulties, they are also dealing with a wave of prisoners whose health care is the most expensive: the geriatric inmates.

In 2000, just 3.5 percent of the state's 44,000 prisoners were age 55 and older. Today, that percentage has doubled to 7 percent as the total prison population grew, too, by 10,000.

Georgia has 27 inmates in their 80s, 218 in their 70s. And their numbers are a ripple compared with the tidal wave of prisoners sentenced to life as young adults under the two-strikes-and-you're-out legislation who are approaching middle age.

Providing medical care for a prisoner over age 65 is nearly nine times higher, averaging $8,500 per year compared with just $961 for younger inmates, according to state figures.

"That's a big part of these older prisoners. The medical expenses just eat the state budget alive," said Mark Jones, an author and professor of criminal justice at East Carolina State University.

Georgia's constitution empowers the Board of Pardons and Paroles to release any prisoner over age 62 or a younger one who is "entirely incapacitated." That definition of incapacitated, though is subject to interpretation.

"Georgia could apply an expansive definition of who is eligible," said Melanie Velez, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights. "There is a growing number of people who would not pose a threat to society."

Legislation stalled this year in the House, after passing the Senate unanimously, that would put into law the definition used by the Parole Board. It uses the same rules the Department of Community Health uses for nursing-home patients.

An inmate needing assistance with two daily life activities - eating, breathing, using the toilet, walking or bathing - is a candidate.

Thirty-five states have similar provisions for a medical release, and a half dozen relaxed them in the last three years, according to Alison Lawrence, policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Compassion and costs are driving the trend.

"Like Georgia, there are not a whole lot of inmates being released," she said.

Georgia has released 180 in the last three fiscal years. While the numbers of those applying for release has fluctuated between 100 and 128, the percentage of those gaining release has steadily risen from 42 percent three years ago, to 55 percent last year and up to 65 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30. …