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Age-related issues increase cost for jail inmates

In a Kitsap County Superior courtroom, eight men file toward empty seats wearing gray-blue jail fabric. Some of the men’s faces are black, some of them are Hispanic. Two of them are white.

But only one bears the faded lines of decades, indicating miles like the cracked rubber sole of a shoe.

Here, Richard A. ‘Mitch’ Mitchusson, 70, is the one not like the others.

Crime, it seems, is a young man’s game.

The crimes of our fathers (and grandfathers)

“It does happen from time to time,” says Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Deputy Scott Wilson. “We have dealt with senior citizens in the past, and they do come in from time to time.”

Aging in the incarcerated hasn’t gone unnoticed, neither by the county sheriff’s office budget or the country as a whole. Some offenders enter the system at an unlikely older age, while others grow with it, tacking on the years behind bars.

The number of state and federal inmates in the United States aged 50 or older rose from nearly 41,600 to more than 113,000 between 1992 and 2001 – an upsurge of 173 percent – according to 2004 National Institute of Corrections figures.

A recent Pew Public Safety Performance Project report observed about one-quarter of the population in federal prisons was older than 50 in 1989. By 2010, that proportion is forecast to grow to one-third.

Still, the numbers of older delinquents fall far behind young ones.

The Pew study, which surmises the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, denotes that while one in every 53 people in their 20s is behind bars, the rate for those over age 55 drops to one in 837.

But if aging decreases criminal activity, it certainly heightens complications for jail or prison inmates above the senior citizen marker. As a result of varying health issues (often hearing and vision troubles, incontinence, dietary intolerance, depression and the early onset of chronic diseases), the average cost associated with housing an older prisoner is $70,000 – two to three times the average cost of a younger prisoner, according to Pew.

Health care and other inmate housing costs have taken flight in recent years, in some states signaling cuts to transportation or education programs. In 1987, according to the Public Safety Performance Project, the states collectively spent $10.6 billion of their general funds on corrections. In 2008, that number vaulted to more than $44 billion – a jump of 315 percent.

In Kitsap, $1.2 million of the $11.9 million 2008 county jail budget was expended directly to inmate medical services, mental health services, pharmacy orders and medical provider services. That amount, more than 10 percent of the jail system’s overall budget, poses problematic because they aren’t fixed expenses.

“We can’t predict what the expenses may be from one year to the next,” Wilson explained. “We can only use a rough estimate based on the costs incurred in previous years.”

The Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office contracts with Conmed Healthcare Management Inc. for in-jail health care. The department’s current contract with Conmed, for the latter portion of 2008 and most of 2009, runs a tab of more than $1 million, and is up nearly $40,000 from the previous year. According to Conmed, each of its onsite jail teams consists of a physician, a Health Services Administrator and additional nursing and support staff. They are equipped to care for gerontological ailments.

The jail is also contracted with Kitsap Mental Health Services, though due to the current economic situation, that contract will not be renewed after May 31, Wilson said.

Sometimes, he noted, petty criminals time their arrests to receive medical care. Each person brought into the jail is screened for infectious diseases, suicide risk and any other issues that would require isolation versus dormitory housing.

In 2008, 10,193 people were booked into the Kitsap County jail. Even while juggling health expenses, the jail “meets and exceeds” standards set by the National Institute for Corrections and American Correctional Association, Wilson said.

Time is a worry

In court, while many of the accused sit straight, some of them looking vacantly ahead, Mitchusson leans his elbow against a warm-hued wooden rail and surveys the quiet circus that has arrived on his behalf. His wife sits among the spectators and television news crews. Her wide brown eyes search the courtroom behind delicate glass lenses. She is winged by family and friends.

“The time he is spending (in jail) is a worry,” said defense attorney Matt Clucas in an e-mail this week. “Mitch is getting medications from the jail. I asked him today what medications he is taking and he did not have any idea. I don’t know if that is due to his condition, the fact that he is not being told, or both.

“We do know he is not taking several of the medications his regular doctor prescribed,” Clucas added. “I do not know why the jail medical staff determined he does not need them.”

Aside from heart- and cancer-related issues, Mitchusson may suffer from Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia known to cause inappropriate behaviors – an element of his defense that will likely play a central role in the case. He is charged on five counts relating to sexually motivated assault, stalking and indecent liberties. The last is a felony.

A Former Poulsbo mayor, Mitchusson is well known about Poulsbo: the man in blue jean overalls famous for friendly Technicolor joke-telling and waxing proud on the history of the city he once led.

To many, the accusations stacking against him came as a surprise, though a fitting one in what they say has been a changing demeanor of a man. Pick’s Disease, some contend, has affected the frontal and temporal anterior lobes of his brain, making a wicked banquet of a mind previously incapable of such allegations. A crime that, they might say, not only reaches to those around him, but has struck within him as well.

Even if the alleged behaviors flit in and out of his own control, it may not make them easier for victims to bear.

Before the court, at a superior court sentencing in which a pair of charges was added to three already against him, Mitchusson speaks in a quiet voice.

“I understand the charge,” he tells the judge, “but I don’t know why.”

He plead not guilty on all five counts.

His situation calls to question what many states have begun to address: Some crimes warrant time behind bars, but as the age of offenders rises, they become less of a threat to public safety and more of a crack in the financial system.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics at mid-year 2008, jail inmates across the country numbered more than 785,500. Those supervised outside a jail facility in home-monitoring, weekender programs, detention or community service – an epoxy without which some experts say whole punitory facilities for the aging will be required - accounted for fewer than 73,000.

Still, striking a balance between a crime, a criminal and the justice due its victim must occur.

“Home-monitoring can be an option in some cases,” Clucas explained. “The court can agree to release someone but confine him to his house.”

At this point in Mitchusson’s case, however, he is still waiting for a full set of police reports before a next step is taken. It should be noted Mitchusson has not been sentenced to any time in prison, nor has he been found guilty of the charges against him. He has been incarcerated in the Kitsap County jail since his arrest March 25.

“Hopefully once we get the police reports we can better determine if Mitch can be released pending the resolution of the case,” Clucas said.

Mitchusson is next set to appear in court April 23. His trial is scheduled to begin May 11, unless it is postponed.

The facts and figures:

- With 1,596,127 in state or federal prison custody and another 723,131 in local jails, the country’s total adult inmate count at the beginning of 2008 stood at 2,319,258, according to Pew.

- Because age-related health problems usually occur earlier in life for prisoners, inmates are considered “elderly” at age 55, which is 10 years before they would receive that distinction outside prison.

- The top five most common ailments in state and federal inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004, were arthritis, asthma, cancer, diabetes and heart problems.

- According to an American Correctional Health Services Association article, criminal correction spending is outpacing state and federal budget growth in education, transportation and public assistance. Only Medicaid spending is growing faster.

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