Changing prison medical release law could make 1,000+ people eligible

By: - May 30, 2023 5:57 am
an aging prisoner in his cell

Aging and infirm inmates make up a growing percentage of North Carolina’s prison population. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Senate Republican leaders included a provision deep within their budget that would broaden North Carolina’s medical release law that offers sick, elderly and dying incarcerated people a path out of prison so they can spend the end of their lives outside the confines of a cell.

Data shared with NC Newsline by Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice, details how many people could benefit from the expansion.

Currently, to qualify for medical release incarcerated people must be so sick that they’re likely to die within six months, have a condition that makes them “permanently and totally disabled,” or be at least 65 years old and have chronic, debilitating diseases related to aging.

The Senate budget would roll back the age criteria for medical release by a decade, making people age 55 or older eligible if they suffer from a chronic disease or illness that is so serious it has made them “medically incapacitated.” The incarcerated person must also pose “no or low risk to public safety.”

That change would make a lot more people eligible. Under the current rules, about 330 imprisoned people are eligible for “geriatric release,” meaning they are age 65 or older and not incarcerated for a Class A or B felony, or for a crime that requires them to be placed on the sex offender registry.

If the provision in the Senate budget becomes law, 1,856 people who are age 55 or older could be eligible for medical release. Reaching a certain age does not guarantee someone will get medical release, but it does mean they could be released if they are ill.

More than half of those age 55 or older who could be eligible for medical release are Black. Just under 40% are white.

Finholt’s figures do not include people in the Statewide Misdemeanor Confinement Program, people serving relatively long sentences for misdemeanors who are doing their time in county jails.

Those given medical release are not simply sent home. They are still under supervision and required to comply with certain terms of release. For instance, they are restricted from leaving their homes or care facilities except for medical appointments. Anyone who violates those terms can be sent back to prison. And those whose health improves could also be sent back, pending the outcome of a hearing.

Research from the North Carolina Sentencing Policy and Advisory Commission indicates incarcerated people are less likely to wind up re-arrested or convicted of another crime as they get older, particularly once they pass age 40. Those who served longer sentences were less likely to commit more crimes, possibly because they had “aged out” of criminal activity, per the report.

The study also found that imprisoned people age 50 or older had the lowest probability of getting arrested again.

The people in North Carolina’s prisons are growing older as those with long sentences remain behind bars. As they age, their medical issues get more complex — and costly.

A one-page fact sheet the Wilson Center shared with NC Newsline points out that it is getting more expensive to keep people in prison, and that putting some people on supervision in the community through medical release would reduce strain on the prison system.

“Expand medical release with supervision so that DAC can safely and effectively reduce prison medical costs, population, and burdens on prison staff,” the one-pager reads. “Expansion is crucial in this time of rampant staff shortages, increasing prison populations, and skyrocketing medical costs.”

State data shows it cost about $99, on average, to incarcerated each of the 36,817 people, on average, who were in state prisons in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018.

Four years later, it cost an average of almost $131 each day to incarcerate each of the 28,692 people who were imprisoned, on average, each day.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.