The Center for Justice at Columbia University released the following report concerning the “graying” of American prisoners and what can be done to reduce the number of elderly people in prison without compromising public safety.
Aging in Prison: Reducing Elder Incarceration and Promoting Public Safety
This policy document, published by the Center for Justice at Columbia University and edited by Samuel Roberts, Associate Professor of History at Columbia University and director for the Institute for Research in African American Studies, is the result of the 2014 symposium hosted by the Mailman School of Public Health/Columbia University and organized by the Center for Justice, the Osborne Association, the Correctional Association of New York, Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP, Be the Evidence Project/Fordham, and the Florence V. Burden Foundation. The symposium examined the growing numbers of aging people in prison, their prison conditions, their transition back into the community and the need to increase the release of aging people who pose little or no public safety risk. This is a critical part of reducing mass incarceration and of creating a more fair, just and humane justice system.
Reducing Incarceration and Endless Punishment, and Moving Toward Release and Successful Reentry Samuel K. Roberts and Lisa K. Sangoi2 Overview The crisis of mass incarceration in the United States is now well documented. We incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any other country in the world—with only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population. The effect of mass incarceration on Black communities is particularly severe. One in seventeen white men are expected to serve time in prison during their lifetime, but this number jumps to one in three for African-American men. New York State is not immune: while New York’s prison population has declined over the past decade and a half, it still incarcerates a large and growing number of people aged 50 and older.3
This reflects a national trend, which experts on criminal justice have called the epidemic “graying” of the prison population. The sheer number of people aging in prison, and their particular needs, already presents a formidable challenge to the ability of correctional facilities to provide adequate care, and to state budgets to keep pace with the exponentially increasing costs of providing health care for aging people.
The social, economic, health, and moral and ethical implications of this crisis were the impetus for this symposium.4 We brought together some of the foremost experts on aging in prison, including academics, practitioners, advocates, and formerly incarcerated people, to share their analysis and consider simple but meaningful steps that New York State could take to move towards a more just and humane system of punishment.
We learned that harsh sentencing policies and consistent underuse of release mechanisms such as parole, clemency, and medical release have significantly contributed to the rise of aging people in prison. We learned that aging people in prison, especially those who are convicted of committing the most serious violent crimes (and are thus serving long sentences), are often perceived as presenting a high risk of reoffending. Yet, the statistics bear out the opposite: aging people convicted of murder present the lowest risk of re-convictions of any prison population,5 and among people convicted of all categories of crimes, people aged 50 and older present the lowest risk of committing a new crime. In New York State, between 1985 and 2010, only 6.4% of incarcerated people released from prison at age 50 or older returned for new convictions within three years (compared with the total for all age groups: 14.9%).6 Nevertheless, this population comprises a large and growing percentage of the prison population.
We learned that incarcerating elderly people comes at a significant cost to the state: almost double the cost of housing younger people. We learned from formerly incarcerated elderly people that while many older incarcerated people are very ill and in need of medical release, many others are healthy and rehabilitated women and men who have contributed immeasurably to their correctional institutions and could become valuable, productive members of society. Lastly, we learned from New York State officials themselves who have played critical roles in parole and release planning that New York State could take several simple but courageous steps to reform parole and release policy. These steps not only represent good criminal justice, public health and fiscal policy, but are also what compassion and justice demand.
While the symposium presentations—and the essays in this book—concentrate on the New York prison system, the conclusions can be applied nationally. In “Recommendations for Reform,” beginning on page XVIII, we list just a few of the policy recommendations the symposium speakers made for New York State. Other states (and the Federal Bureau of Prisons) will need to address the crisis in ways specific to the applicable laws and regulations.
The report can be downloaded here.