Delaware Prison Health Care: And Justice for All?

Delaware advocates are capitalizing on an administration willing to tackle the political hot potato of prisoner early release and an obscure section of code to help a handful of geriatric offenders re-enter society.

The Project for Older Prisoners is powered by just one part-time staffer and volunteers inside and outside the Delaware Department of Correction. But the Delaware Center for Justice program, started in 2009, is proving successful.

The first candidate was released two years ago. She’s employed, living on her own and has successfully completed probation, according to Kim-Alla Swanton, POPS coordinator. A second, convicted of possession and other drug offenses, was released in late May and is working with POPS to become re-established in the community.

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The DCJ has a great track record. Nationally, 60 percent of offenders are back in prison in three years, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, while only 12 percent who work with DCJ return.

POPS has a great track record, too: Nearly 300 ex-offenders are back in the community through the first POPS started at Tulane Law School in 1989. That’s why DOC Commissioner Carl Danberg was eager to help DCJ start one here.

“I fully support the POPS program being in Delaware’s prisons, especially when the state is looking into possible alternative placement for aging and older inmates,” Danberg says.

POPS follows a rigorous “quality over quantity” process, says Julie Miller, a DCJ program coordinator who helped launch Delaware’s POPS. It starts by distilling a list of 140 prospects to the six most promising, then works intensely with them to ensure success. By the time the offender reaches the end of the year-long process, they’ve passed muster with the DOC, the Institutional Review and Classification Board, Board of Parole, and the sentencing judge.

By then, they also have a realistic re-entry plan for housing, work and connecting with community support—a unique component among POPS programs that is key, says DCJ associate director Joanna Champney. “We make the case for why they should be released, and how stable they are going to be,” she says.

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POPS is based on studies that show that offenders tend to “age out” of crime, and Delaware’s little used sentence modification provision for offenders with “exceptional rehabilitation, serious medical illness or infirmity.” DOC added criteria: Candidates must be at least 45, with no convictions for sexual offenses, no life sentences, and complete at least half of the sentence for violent crime convictions.

Champney hopes that Gov. Jack Markell’s call to action in the 2010 state address and executive order for an initiative to reduce recidivism will raise support for targeted re-entry. “The return on investment is significant,” she says, “even if you get only a few people out per year, for the individual, taxpayer and community.”

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