February 24, 1996 in Nation/World

Cost Of Jailing Aging Inmates Is Worth It Batt Drops Plan To Free Old Cons After It’s Pointed Out That Most Of Them Are Sexual Offenders

Winda Benedetti The Associated Press Contributed Staff writer

Of the 161 state prison inmates who are 55 years old or older, 93 were convicted of sex crimes.

At first blush, it seemed like a good idea.

Idaho’s cramped and money-hungry prison system needed relief. With all the health problems of advanced age, elderly prison inmates were merely adding to that burden.

So, Gov. Phil Batt thought releasing many of them would be a harmless, fiscally sound idea.

What he found surprised him.

“They’re dirty old guys,” he said.

The majority of older inmates locked in Idaho’s prison system are sex offenders, according to an Idaho Department of Corrections report on geriatric inmates.

Of the 161 state prison inmates who are 55 years old or older, 93 were convicted of such crimes as sexual abuse of children, lewd conduct and rape, according to the report. That’s almost 58 percent.

Of the 25 inmates who were 70 years and older, 20 of them had committed sex offenses.

The oldest prison inmate - 84 years old - is serving an eight-year sentence for lewd conduct. He was sentenced for the crime only two years ago.

“I thought it would be quite simple to release some people who were debilitated by age, and thus would not be a menace to society,” Batt said. “But my general theory that we could turn these old folks loose is wrong.”

Kootenai County authorities agree.

“The fact that someone is 55 years or older does not make them no longer a sex offender,” said Lansing Haynes, Kootenai County chief deputy prosecutor.

Consider this:

The sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices are currently investigating an 85-year-old man suspected of molesting his granddaughter, Haynes said.

Buster Morgan, 77, formerly of Athol, Idaho, is wanted on a warrant for lewd conduct with a minor.

George P. Anton, 69, of Coeur d’Alene, fled the county after he was convicted on three counts of raping a 16-year-old girl.

One 58-year-old Post Falls man confessed to molesting more than 20 children.

“Just because you turn 55, you’re not going to be magically rehabilitated,” said Kootenai County Sheriff’s Lt. Nile Shirley.

Mary Zichko fears the day her ex-husband is released from prison.

“I think it’s a very bad idea to release any sex offenders,” she said.

John Zichko, 56, is serving a five-year prison sentence for failing to register as a sex-offender. He was convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl in 1987.

“The older ones are just as capable of re-offending as the younger ones are,” Mary Zichko said Friday.

Sex offenders make up only about 20 percent of the overall prison population, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Ann Thompson. About three-quarters of the victims of Idaho sex offenders are children.

It costs the state $2.6 million a year to incarcerate inmates age 55 and older, according to the study.

Despite the public’s frustration over spending money on more prison space, it still wants molesters behind bars, Thompson said.

“I think they need to build more prison space to keep the people there who need to be there,” Shirley said.

Mary Zichko believes the cost of locking up prisoners doesn’t compare to the cost to the victims.

“Those are high-price crimes. The victims live with this forever,” she said. It was one of her relatives who was raped by John Zichko.

“They’re very expensive. That’s the main reason we had such a large supplemental appropriation for Correction for medical care,” Batt said.

The base budget for the department’s medical costs was $2.4 million. The supplemental funding will run that up another $1.6 million.

“It’s a bad deal. But after looking at the profiles, that’s not going to be as good a source of relief as I thought,” the governor said.

Most police investigators said they do not believe that sex offenders can be truly reformed.

“I think that a sex offender who offends more than once can never be rehabilitated, they can only be controlled,” said Post Falls Police Detective Dick Halligan.

Dr. Virgil Sterling, who was chief psychologist for Idaho’s prison system from 1985 until last November, said a lengthy term constitutes a death sentence for many elderly convicts.

He encountered a number of inmates who could have been shifted to nursing care outside prison during his tenure. For some, the mental capacity for crime might be diminished because of Alzheimer’s disease. But they seldom get the chance to find out whether a nursing home is an option.

“Because of the victim’s family’s reaction, he will stay in prison,” Sterling said. “You repeat that and repeat that and repeat that, and see what you have.”

State law allows a medical release if prisoners are permanently incapacitated, terminally ill or the Idaho Commission for Pardons and Parole decides they no longer pose a threat.

But Idaho does not have halfway houses to keep track of sex offenders, and Thompson said they would have to be completely incapacitated to not be a danger.

Of the other 68 elderly inmates, fifteen others were convicted of murder, 30 were convicted of drunk driving and drug charges and six were convicted of robbery.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Senior prisoners and sex crimes

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Winda Benedetti Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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