State Considers Option to Free Terminally Ill Prisoners

By Sarah Birnbaum

Feb. 28, 2012

BOSTON — A Massachusetts Legislature hearing Tuesday turned contentious over a bill that would permit compassionate release of terminally ill inmates. The measure would allow seriously ill patients who are deemed to pose no threat to society to be released early from prison. 

> > Read the bill

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), said it would save the state money: “We have a very expensive group of people who are aging and dying in prison and the cost of taking care of them is very high.”
Jehlen said if patients were in hospice or a nursing home, then Medicaid would pick up half the tab.
Under the bill, the prison doctor would have to certify that the inmate was terminally ill and physically incapable of posing a risk to himself or society. Then the state commissioner of corrections would have sole authority to grant medical release. 
But at the hearing, Jehlen was grilled by members of the Joint Committee on Public Safety.
For instance, committee chairman James Timilty (D-Walpole) brought up the case of the Lockerbie bomber, who was released by Scottish officials after doctors predicted he had three months left to live. But he didn’t die — and now he’s free in Libya.
And Sen. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham) said freed inmates facing their own mortality might be even more tempted to commit crimes:
“Sometimes when people are faced with a limit on their own life it would exacerbate, some people believe, their proclivity to do something to other people. As a public safety committee, we have to take that into account,” he said.
The committee hearing was just the first step for the bill, which still has a long way to go.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 states have compassionate release laws but in reality the laws have minimal impact because few prisoners actually get released. 

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor