MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama corrections officials will begin releasing sick or dying prison inmates next month in order to save millions in taxpayer dollars.
Prison commissioner Richard Allen said each of the inmates costs the state $60,000 to $65,000 in medical costs. He said about 125 of them will be eligible for the furloughs that will begin on Sept. 1.
But victims rights advocates say the program is too broad and fear it will lead to dangerous criminals getting back on the streets.
"This bill is so vague and broad, it's scary," said Miriam Shehane, who founded Victims of Crime and Leniency in 1982 after her daughter was abducted, raped and killed in 1976. "There needs to be more controls in place."
Only prisoners who are 55 and older with life-threatening illnesses are eligible for the program. Allen said no inmates convicted of capital crimes can take part, nor most of those convicted of sex crimes.
The Montgomery Advertiser, which reported on the plan in Monday's editions, found that 37 states have some program allowing for the early release of sick or dying prisoners.
Capt. Ron McCuan, a health analyst with the National Institute of Corrections — a Justice Department agency — said state officials are looking for new ways to reduce health care expenses.
Releasing ill or sickly inmates shifts the cost of their care to the federally funded Medicare program, or to Medicaid, which is funded by the state and federal governments, he said.
"Early release of terminal or infirm inmates without a doubt saves tremendous amounts of tax dollars," McCuan said. "The taxpayers simply can't afford to pay exploding end-of-life health-care costs."
The bill required that victims and the local district attorneys be notified, and it guarantees victims a right to file a protest.
"This is a very limited program that has broad bipartisan support and includes important safeguards and conditions," Gov. Bob Riley said. "The prison system can set further conditions and can bring inmates back into the system if their conditions change."
The goal of punishing wrongdoing is achieved because the prisoner realizes he or she has squandered their years of healthy living. And compassion is shown when dying inmates are allowed to spend their final days around friends and family, he said.
"Alabama's and other states' policymakers are to be commended on their wisdom in passing statutes to allow these forward-thinking practices," McCuan said.