NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 7, 2005

As the nation's prison population ages, many are beginning to question whether terminally ill prisoners should be released as an act of compassion when they are no longer a threat to society, says the Wall Street Journal.

The requests for compassionate release are becoming increasingly common. Over the past decade, the number of sentenced inmates over the age of 45 has grown three times faster than the general prison population, according to Department of Justice figures, driven by a nationwide tough-on-crime attitude and the rise of lengthy mandatory sentences.


  • In 2003, prisoners 45 and over accounted for 17.8 percent of sentenced inmates, up from 13 percent in 1995.
  • Hospice and prisoner advocacy groups estimate about 100 inmates are let out annually under some form of "compassionate release" program related to ill-health; however, it is unclear how that number has changed recently.
  • Inmate health care costs have become a growing problem for states, rising 42 percent last year to $3.7 billion, according to the American Correctional Association.

The Journal says getting a "terminally ill" diagnosis can be the toughest part of the process, since it is hard to predict when someone will die. However, Washington state releases some prisoners with serious medical conditions, whether terminal or not, in part by looking at the financial dynamics.

Mark Stern, director of medical services for the Washington State Department of Corrections, says they will release somebody to the outside if doing so will save the state a significant amount of money and it is safe to do so. Many states exclude from compassionate release programs inmates who committed violent or sex crimes.

Critics argue the principle of serving time, regardless of circumstances, trumps these considerations. Some opponents of compassionate parole understand some inmates are terminally ill but they say, in fact, we are all terminal - we are all going to die.

Source: Gary Fields, "Out of Time: As Prisoners Age, Terminally Ill Raise Tough Questions," Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2005.

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