Few Infirm Prisoners get released by Lloyd Dunkelberger

Posted: March 20, 2015 in News and politics

Over the past 18 years, a little more than 200 prisoners have been released from Florida’s massive prison system for medical reasons. It’s a paltry number given the 100,000-plus inmates, and given that Florida’s prisoners are an aging group. As of June 2014, a fifth of the inmate population was defined as elderly — older than 50. More than 1,000 prisoners were older than 70, including two 92-year-old inmates, among the oldest in the U.S.

Last year, 18 inmates applied to the newly named Commission on Offender Review — the former Parole Commission; only eight were granted the conditional medical release. The reason is Florida has a very narrow definition of what qualifies an inmate for medical release. The inmate must be either “terminally ill” or “permanently incapacitated.” If they meet one of those definitions and the Offender Review Commission agrees, those prisoners can be released under supervision, including a provision that would send them back to prison if their condition improves.

In the 2015 session that begins Tuesday, lawmakers will consider broadening that definition for conditional medical release to include “elderly and infirm inmates,” defined as prisoners older than 70 who haven’t committed violent crimes and have a medical condition that “renders the inmate infirm or physically impaired to the extent that the inmate does not constitute a danger to himself or herself or others.”

It would bring Florida in line with other states and the federal government, which have set “geriatric” standards for the review of inmate sentences. The bills (SB 2070 and HB 785) would also let the families of inmates pay for independent medical exams to determine an infirmity, then submit reports to the Department of Corrections and the Offender Review Commis-sion. Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee lawyer with 20 years of experience handling clemency and parole cases, said broadening the definition for conditional medical releases is a good idea. “There’s a humanitarian reason to do that and there is a cost savings reason to do that,” he said.

Garcia has a new book — “How to Leave Prison Early” — that delves into the medical releases as well as other clemency and early release issues in the Florida prison system.

“The reality is there are thousands of older inmates with chronic illnesses. While very serious, most of these illnesses evidently do not rise to the level of having a terminal illness or permanent incapacitation,” he wrote. Garcia and others authorities note that providing medical care for elderly prisoners is costly. The National Institute of Corrections estimates that some $70,000 a year on average is spent on elderly prisoners, nearly three times the cost for younger prisoners.

Seeking a medical release is among a variety of issues Garcia explores in his book meant for inmates and their families. He also outlines some 25 steps for clemency review, 17 steps for prisoners seeking parole (which was abolished in the 1990s) and seven steps for entering a work-release program.

Garcia said he wrote the book to demystify the complicated and complex early release procedures that involve the Department of Corrections, the Offender Review Commission and the governor and Cabinet, who sit as the state Clemency Board.

“Families with inmates … they simply do not understand the early release options. The process is intimidating. The terminology is confusing,” Garcia said. He said the book — available on Amazon — is especially meant for those who can’t “afford a lawyer.”

WINNER OF THE WEEK

Ray Sansom. The former House speaker won a ruling from a Leon County circuit judge that the state must pay his legal fees — which could amount to close to $1 million — in a case where the former House leader was accused of corrupt activities related to a $6 million appropriation for an airplane hangar in the state budget. The corruption case was dropped by state prosecutors.

LOSER OF THE WEEK

Financial disclosure advocates. A state appellate court threw out a lawsuit challenging a state law that allowed Gov. Rick Scott to use a blind trust to shield his personal assets rather than filing a detailed accounting of his finances. The suit contended the blind-trust law violated a 1976 constitutional amendment backed by Gov. Reubin Askew that required state officials to file full financial disclosures.

QUOTE OF WEEK

“I look forward to continuing to meet with more companies in Pennsylvania to highlight all of the great things we are doing in Florida,” Gov. Rick Scott said after his first “job poaching” trip to try to lure more out-of-state companies to Florida. Scott’s Pennsylvania trip yielded an announcement from Wawa Inc. that it would expand by another 50 stores in Florida over the next two years.

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