Alternative needed for elderly, sick Mass. inmates

21prisons -- Inmates at MCI-Shirley (Christopher Burrell/New England Center for Investigative Reporting)
Christopher Burrell/New England Center for Investigative Reporting
Inmates at MCI-Shirley.

LAST MONTH, Governor Charlie Baker reluctantly signed a sweeping criminal justice overhaul into law. Now he’s trying to weaken a key provision, a “compassionate release” measure allowing some of the sickest and most incapacitated inmates to leave prison before they die.

Lawmakers should reject the governor’s efforts. Compassionate release is the right thing to do, and it could save Massachusetts taxpayers millions of dollars to boot.

Baker has proposed legislation prohibiting the release of inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder, a group that includes 375 elderly inmates. He also wants to put tight restrictions on sex offenders.


The impulse is understandable. These prisoners were convicted of terrible crimes. But a story in last week’s Globe, by Jenifer McKim of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, shows these inmates are often hobbled by dementia, cancer, or strokes. Some are incontinent and wear diapers. And as the data make clear, they are unlikely to re-offend if released.

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Joe Labriola, a 71-year-old convicted of the 1973 murder of a cocaine dealer, uses a wheelchair now. “Taking a shower, it’s like running a marathon,” he told McKim. “My lungs are going. What threat would I be?”

Massachusetts was one of the last states in the country to enact a compassionate release measure, making it a laggard in modernizing its criminal justice policies.

It’s not just a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one. It’s expensive to care for inmates, because corrections costs are layered on top of medical expenses: When Labriola is taken to the hospital, he’s accompanied by two guards and is shackled to his bed.

If an offender is released from prison and lands in a purely medical facility, the cost to taxpayers should be smaller, says Tina Maschi, a Fordham University professor who has studied compassionate release. And some patients are able to receive care at home, she adds, cutting costs even further.


For state budget hawks, there is this additional benefit: In prison, it’s the state picking up the cost of care. Out of prison, the federal government shares the burden.

Ben Forman, research director at the think tank MassINC, says there is also a question of priorities. Letting the perpetrator of a violent crime free a few months early can feel like a violation of social responsibilities to the victims. “But,” he says, “we also have a responsibility to future victims.”

His argument: There are limited resources in the corrections system, and we should be pouring them into services for younger and potentially more dangerous inmates — making them less likely to re-offend, and victimize new people, when they get out of prison.

It’s a difficult choice, but a necessary one. Compassionate release is a matter of trade-offs, moral and financial. And ultimately, those trade-offs are for the good.