Quadriplegics and Geezers Deemed Too Dangerous to Release from Prison

A quadriplegic could be a threat to public safety if release from prison. At least, that’s what the California Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) concluded when a prisoner requested compassionate release.

Steven Martinez, convicted of several violent felonies, had served three years of a 157-year sentence when he was stabbed by another inmate. His spinal cord was severed, and he was permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Despite his physical condition, the Parole Board denied his request– citing his violent past and verbal threats he had made since he was rendered quadriplegic–and said that he must remain incarcerated indefinitely.

According to the blog Lowering the Bar (which specializes in reporting on legal absurdities) this week a California state Court of Appeals more or less agreed with the Parole Board. In Martinez v. Board of Parole Hearings, the Appeals Court decided that the case should be “returned to BPH because it did not explicitly articulate” the facts on which the Board had based its decision. Yet the Court found that such a threat was “conceivable.”

On Legal Blog Watch, Bruce Carton writes about the Court’s opinion, in which a dissenting judge faces off against the majority over what Carton dubs “the ‘dangerous quadriplegic’ doctrine.”

The majority opinion cited four cases to show that “quadriplegics can commit violent crimes.” Among these  was one case where “a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair thought his bride of two weeks was cheating on him and killed her by firing a pistol using a string in his mouth.”

The dissenting judge responded that “with the help of a good Internet search engine, you can prove anything, including that pigs can fly.” He then proceeded to cite several stories in which they did just that (with the help of a trampoline or an airplane–but still). The judge concluded:

[T]he majority’s citation of these quadriplegic crime stories actually supports my argument. Thus the majority’s four accounts are drawn from the entire country and span a period of 38 years–from 1972 to the present. I am sure that if there were more stories of this ilk, the majority would have found them.

Four stories in the country in 38 years is darn few. Indeed, the stories are written and reported because the commission of serious crimes by quadriplegics is so rare and bizarre that they are newsworthy. Thus I am willing to take the risk that petitioner Martinez will fire a pistol with a string in his mouth. Indeed, given the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Martinez is costing the State each year, it is a risk that we all must take.

California’s compassionate release program was in large part designed to save money, in a cash-strapped state that has the nation’s largest population of prisoners, and spends $8 billion a year to incarcerate them. But the Parole Board’s response–and the Court’s–show why even crippling state budget crises do not necessarily lead to more sensible corrections policies.

The same is true when it comes to the growing numbers of old inmates languishing in U.S. prisons due to longer sentences and harsher parole policies. Jonathan Turley, who founded the Project for Older Prisoners, has written that in assessing risk factors for parole or early release, “the most reliable is age. As a general rule, people become less dangerous as they age. In males, the greatest drop in recidivism occurs around age 30 and tends to continue to fall.” At the same time, “because of maintenance and medical costs, the average cost of an older prisoner is two to three times that of a younger prisoner.”

A report on the subject released earlier this week by the Vera Institute of Justice recommends more use of early release for older prisoners who present a low risk to public safety. But if a quadriplegic is deemed dangerous, can anyone ever be “low risk”? According to an article about the Vera study on The Crime Report:

At the end of 2009, 15 states and the District of Columbia had provisions for geriatric release, but jurisdictions rarely use them. Four factors help explain the difference between the stated intent and the actual impact of geriatric release laws: political considerations and public opinion; narrow eligibility criteria; procedures that discourage inmates from applying for release; and complicated and lengthy referral and review processes.

Last year, I wrote a two-part article for The Crime Report about the “Graying of America’s Prisons,” citing many cases in which states denied early release to elderly prisoners–even ones who showed ample evidence of rehabilitation. (You can read it here and here.) In many cases, these same inmates would have been out long ago had their crimes preceded the draconian sentencing boom of the last 30 years.

The fact that so many states refuse to seriously consider releasing prisoners who are rendered virtually harmless by age, sickness, or disability suggests that our prison policies have less to do with protecting public safety, and more to do with the politics of punishment and the psychology of retribution.

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