COLUMBUS - Part of the Ohio House's response to escalating medical bills in the state prison system would be to release more inmates suffering from terminal, expensive-to-treat conditions.
The $51.3 billion, two-year budget that the House sent to the Senate last week would establish a Medical Hardship Prisoner Release Commission to review recommendations for release. If an inmate is released, he would be treated as if he had completed his sentence. He would, however, remain under the watch of the parole system for up to three years. Death-row inmates would not be eligible.
Director Reginald Wilkinson said he has no opinion of the proposal. He noted that other states operate similar systems.
"There may be some cost savings by moving out more medically infirm persons," he said. "We already have a medical standard of imminent danger of death, which usually applies to persons who will die within a six-month period. We're going to expand the standard for who we will actually let out."
Department spokesman Andrea Dean said three people were released for medical hardship between 2002 and 2004.
Rep. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville), chairman of the House finance subcommittee on transportation and justice, said he envisioned a program affecting those with just months to live. Those prisoners would be sent to a nursing home.
"It's a combination of a budgetary move and a humane thing," he said. "We have 266 prisoners in our system of 47,000 who are terminally ill with such things [as] cancer or advanced Alzheimer's."
Currently, a prison physician recommends an inmate's release for medical reasons. If Mr. Wilkinson approves, the request is forwarded to Gov. Bob Taft for the final decision.
"We would be sensitive to victim and prosecutor issues," he said. "We won't do anything like release a high-profile murderer or sex offender."
The state continues to seek a settlement in a federal lawsuit filed in Cincinnati that accuses the state of malpractice in its medical treatment of inmates. Al Gerhardstein, president of the Prison Reform Advocacy Center, said this has not been part of negotiations.
"Prisons have a duty to ensure continuity of care through release," he said. "If the notion is somebody needs chemo, and we're going to dump him on the street because he's costing the state money, I'd be concerned."
The $1.5 billion, two-year prisons budget would see minor increases of 2.6 percent in 2006 and 1.7 percent in 2007. Spending on medical services is expected to climb 14 percent next year to $159.9 million and 10 percent in 2007 to $176.5 million.
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