9 Investigates

The high cost of housing Florida's aging prison population

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In 1989, Richard Delisi was sentenced to 30 years in prison for racketeering and trafficking in cannabis; he was 40 at the time, and he’ll be 75 when he’s eligible to be released.

Delisi is a remnant of Florida’s crackdown on crime and his age means he is likely costing the state thousands more than other inmates.

Florida is currently incarcerating 27,719 elderly inmates. The elderly population represents less than one third of the total population, yet the Florida Department of Corrections estimates “43 percent (of) all outpatient episodes for care and 50 percent of all inpatient hospital days” are attributable to elderly inmates. Health care costs the state $20,367 per year per inmate, but inmates older than 50 can cost as much as $70,000 a year, due to increased medical costs.

“We know from criminal justice data that people age out (of) crime-committing, that is that people age out of their crime-committing years,” said Robert Weissert, of the nonpartisan Florida Tax Watch. “We have to remember that hard on crime is good, but hard on crime is also hard on taxpayers.”

In 2014, Tax Watch released a report on Florida’s aging prison population. The report traced the problem in Florida to the elimination of parole and subsequent implication of new laws on sentencing, finding that “as a result of Florida’s tough-on-crime laws, the length of prison sentences in Florida has increased more than any other state.”

About 43 percent of all inmates in the Florida Department of Corrections are serving sentences for sex crimes or violent crimes, with an additional 12 percent behind bars for property crimes. That leaves about 45 percent of the elderly population in prison for nonviolent crimes or drug crimes.

“We need to identify those individuals that don’t need to be in prison any longer,” Weissert said.

Florida does have a conditional medical-release program. The program only applies to a terminal prisoner in the last six months of life, and only releases them if they are deemed to not be a danger and if they have a place to go.

Experts suggest looking at what other states have done to address this problem. Ohio, Louisiana and Virginia have implemented geriatric conditional-release programs that make age a consideration for early release.

Without a mechanism in place to identify prisoners that could be released, Florida is eyeing a growing cost. In Florida, the elderly inmate population has increased over the last four years, from 19,600 in 2013 to 22,985 in 2017 -- a 17.3 percent increase.

In its 2014 report, Tax Watch noted the threat this growing population posed to the Florida budget.

"The fiscal consequences of a rapidly aging prison population pose an ominous threat to Florida taxpayers. Not only will it cost hundreds of millions of dollars per year to pay for medical costs of prisoners who pose little threat to public safety, but it will also distract from the corrections mission, divert needed resources, and reduce public safety.”

While advocates admit that health care costs would not disappear after release from prison, and many former inmates would still need government assistance for health care, they point out that the cost would be much lower in a public setting versus a prison. An early release program would save taxpayers money and reduce the size of the prison population.