Bill would free dying or disabled inmates

Legislation to allow the release of some the most expensive state prison inmates — those who are so infirm they are no longer a threat to society — could come up for a vote in the state House next week.

A House judiciary committee unanimously approved legislation today that would set up a method to release inmates who are geriatric, terminally ill or permanently and totally disabled.

Prison officials estimate about 160 inmates would be eligible for release if the legislation becomes law.

Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand’s legislation overwhelmingly passed the state Senate last session.

Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat and chairwoman of the House judiciary committee, said she wanted the Correction Department and health care providers to look at the legislation.

She said she was satisfied that the legislation would protect the public, save the state money and make sure the freed inmates receive adequate care.

“It’s good legislation on a number of levels,” Ross said. “First of all, it frees up prison beds for younger, violent offenders.”

The prison system is currently at maximum capacity, and correction officials have told county jails to hold sentenced inmates until a new prison opens late summer. But that will only be a temporary fix, as the system’s population continues to grow.

The prison population is expected to exceed 40,000 inmates next year. State officials say growth in the state’s overall population is the major reason for the rising prison population.

Infirm inmates cost the state far more than other inmates because of they require health care. Correction officials said a sampling of 20 such inmates showed an average cost of $87,000 per year.

Correction officials said that the state could save between several hundred thousand dollars and several million dollars by releasing them.

Deputy Correction Secretary Tracy Little said the legislation provides some help, but it would be minor in a budget of more than $1.2 billion.

In many cases, releasing the inmates will just mean shifting of costs to federal health insurance programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

“So, what we are trying to do is get the federal government to pay for the care?” asked House Minority Leader Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, during the committee hearing.

“Well, if it happens, it happens,” Rand said, tongue-in-cheek. Stam later called for committee approval.

Inmates and their families could petition correction officials to be considered for release. Those convicted of serious crimes, such as murder or rape, would not be eligible.

The Correction Department and the state parole commission would have to approve the releases



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