October 23, 2011

When life is too long: Debate over older prisoners

Extract from article:

Yohannes Johnson is serving 75 years to life in a remote upstate New York prison, behind 30-foot concrete walls and locked steel doors, 300 miles and 30 years and 10 months from home in New York City.

He measures time in long, slow, personal change. And he maintains hope he will, someday, walk outside the Clinton Correction Facility.

"One thing I don't do is subject myself to the thought I'll never leave prison," said Johnson, now 55, slender and soft-spoken, his hair flecked with gray. He's a convicted robber and killer and president of the prison's Lifer's and Long-Termer's Organization, part of a growing club of inmates locked up for life nationwide. "I can't afford to do that. I do that, I lose hope. I lose hope then I don't care about anything. I don't care about anything then I become a detriment to myself and those around me."

Now, even corrections officials are considering different options for older inmates while some research suggests keeping them locked up until they die might be an expensive and unnecessary price for the public to pay.

Nationally, nearly 10 percent of more than 2.3 million inmates were serving life sentences in 2008, including 41,095 people doing life without parole, up 22 percent in five years, according to The Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to prison. The increase resulted from lawmakers "dramatically" expanding the types and repeat offenses that carry potential life terms, research analyst Ashley Nellis said.

"The theme is we're protecting society, then the question is: From what?" said Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog group. She said with the cost of keeping a state inmate $55,000 a year — a cost that grows as they age and their medical needs increase — a financial analysis shows that parole and probation are far cheaper punishments that can also satisfy the public need for retribution.

Meanwhile, data show new crimes by convicted felons steadily declining from their teens through their dotage.

"Most criminal behavior is tied with impulse control. The section of the brain that controls impulse control is the last section of the brain that becomes fully developed," Elijah said. There's a large drop-off in criminal behavior and recidivism after 40 or 45, she said, a point seldom made in public discussion "because it's not convenient. It doesn't dovetail with the kind of tough-on-crime mentality that results in votes."...

For complete article, see:
When life is too long: Debate over older prisoners, by Michael Virtanen (Associated Press, October 22 2011)