Older N.J. inmates may be released under plan for ‘geriatric parole’

In this photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010, an inmate sits in is his wheelchair near his bed (Sandy Summers Russell/AP Photo)

In this photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010, an inmate sits in is his wheelchair near his bed (Sandy Summers Russell/AP Photo)

New Jersey lawmakers are considering a plan to offer parole to older inmates who are imprisoned for less serious crimes. The move could save the state millions of dollars and extend compassion to offenders who are not a public safety threat, they said.

If signed into law, New Jersey would be the 18th state to offer “geriatric parole.”

“If someone is too old or too sick, has not committed a serious crime, and has shown that they have been rehabilitated, it is my belief that they should be given the opportunity for early release,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, who co-sponsored the legislation.

The bill, which Schaer introduced in January, got a boost this week when Gov. Phil Murphy included the idea of geriatric parole in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

Based on the number of eligible inmates in New Jersey and the cost of housing them, Schaer estimated that the state could cut spending by $4 million if it implemented geriatric parole.

“I don’t suggest that $4 million out of $37 or $38 billion is seismic,” he said. “Nonetheless, every dollar is important.”

The plan would allow an inmate who is 65 or older and who has completed at least a third of his or her sentence for a less serious crime to apply for geriatric parole.

Inmates would be ineligible for the program if they had been convicted of murder, robbery, terrorism, racketeering, sex crimes and other serious offenses.

According to Schaer, just 4 percent of inmates over 65 return to prison, while the recidivism rate for younger inmates is 10 times higher.

Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, said geriatric parole was an emerging issue used in part to deal with lengthy drug sentences from years past.

“We had several decades of very, very harsh, draconian sentences that have left individuals — often for nonviolent offenses — incarcerated for decades,” Scotti said.

“At some point, who you’re punishing here is not the individual. It’s the taxpayers and the community, because there is no threat to public safety and they’re losing millions of dollars,” she added.

New Jersey law already includes medical parole for inmates with terminal illnesses.

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