The High Cost of Low Risk: The Crisis of America's Aging Prison Population
Date:  05-21-2018

By 2030, people over 50 will make up one-third of the US prison population
From the Executive Summary of Osborne Association report The High Cost of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population:

During the past four decades, we have experienced the most sustained and widespread imprisonment binge in recorded human history. The facts are all too familiar and are finally receiving widespread, even bipartisan, attention: The United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, yet is responsible for nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. With an estimated 2.3 million people in confinement, one out of every 32 adults under correctional control or community supervision, and roughly one-third of all adults with some sort of criminal record, the U.S. surpasses all other countries in sheer numbers and per capita incarceration and criminalization rates. The disparate impact on people and communities of color is also part of this disturbing landscape: black youth are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth;1 one in 3 black men is expected to spend time in prison (compared to one in 17 white men);2 and close to 2/3 of women in prison are women of color.3 According to the NAACP, “If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.”4

The population of a prison system is a function of the number of people who enter and how long they stay. Although crime rates are lower than they were 10 years ago,5,6 and thirty-six states have reduced their imprisonment rates,7 extreme sentence lengths and narrow release mechanisms have led to a growing crisis of older adults in America’s prisons. By 2030, the population of people aged 50 and older is projected to account for one-third of all incarcerated people in the U.S., amounting to a staggering 4,400 percent increase over a fifty-year span.8 Addressing this crisis is perhaps one of the most salient and pressing challenges facing corrections administrators—and therefore, states and taxpayers—over the next 20 years.

In recent years, organizations working for criminal justice reform and formerly incarcerated people have called for increased attention to the issue of aging in prison. In 2014, when the Osborne Association first issued a white paper on this subject, the looming crisis had begun to receive attention in a variety of media outlets. In New York, diverse stakeholders—including direct service providers, those directly affected, City and State government agencies, and researchers—came together to form the New York Aging Reentry Task Force. This Task Force developed a unique model for case management and community-based support for older people in and returning from prison, and convened a symposium at Columbia University which resulted in the release of a comprehensive report, Aging in Prison: Reducing Elder Incarceration and Promoting Public Safety.9 Four years later, as the number of older people in prison continues to climb, much has been learned that has informed the debate. As detailed in this updated white paper, some correctional systems have begun to take steps to better support currently incarcerated older people. Several books, reports, and articles in the past few years have called into question the notion that criminal justice reform only applies to those convicted of nonviolent offenses, and have recognized that warehousing individuals for decades is an entirely insufficient and counterproductive response to violent crime.

In spite of these important efforts, much work remains to be done across the country to improve conditions of confinement, encourage decarceration, and build community supports for formerly incarcerated elders. While new reports and articles increase knowledge and understanding, this crisis continues to grow with an increasing number of people dying in prison: in 2014 (the most recent year for which data was collected) 2,044 older people died in federal and state prisons, the first time in recorded US prison history that any age demographic surpassed 2,000 deaths in a single year. Given these chilling figures, this updated white paper aims to educate, but also to call to action policy makers and those in positions of power to enact meaningful and lasting changes to better support currently incarcerated older people, release them in greater numbers, and support them in their return to the community.

This report synthesizes updated research and more recent data, as well as new thinking about decarceration, violence and punishment, healing, public safety and victims’ experiences and perspectives. It also draws on the voices and knowledge of older people who have come home, and the experiences of practitioners doing groundbreaking work. Within this updated framework, this paper provides the overall landscape of the issues affecting older people in prison, including how we got here and the impact this crisis is having nationally, with a particular focus on New York. The first section discusses the most significant contributing factors to the dramatic growth in the numbers of people aging in prison: lengthy sentences, narrow release mechanisms, and society’s approach and response to violence. Sections Two and Three examine the experiences and challenges faced by older people while incarcerated (including the impact on corrections of providing care and custody to an aging population) and upon reentry. Section Four offers examples of programs and approaches designed to address the needs of older people in prison and upon their return to the community.

Section Five presents recommendations that include the full range of policy and practice reforms needed to address the crisis. Implementing these recommendations will require decision-makers to confront the current punishment paradigm which has roots in and perpetuates racial injustice, and criminalizes addiction and mental illness. The five areas of recommendations from this section include:

ONE: Improve conditions inside of prisons and jails for those aging within them, including strengthening staff capacity to recognize and address age-related issues, and adopting policies and practices that consider age-related concerns;

TWO: Improve discharge planning and reentry preparation for older people within correctional facilities;

THREE: Expand release mechanisms that have specific salience for older people, including compassionate release and medical parole, presumptive parole for older adults, and improving the quality of information parole boards receive by implementing geriatric assessments within correctional settings that inform care and release plans;

FOUR: Improve the reentry experience of older people coming home by increasing community supports and receptivity, including addressing their housing, medical/ health, mental health, post-incarceration, financial, family, and employment needs.

FIVE: Shift the response to violence by expanding the range of services offered to victims and survivors of crime beyond just “more incarceration,” and reducing excessively long sentences for all crimes of conviction, including for violent crimes.

In spite of recent federal calls for more incarceration, there is persistent support for criminal justice reform and growing momentum to address the human and economic cost of aging in prison. The fields of gerontology, physical and mental health, philanthropy, and corrections have a unique opportunity to unite to identify and support innovative and effective solutions to improve the lives of those aging in prison, while also developing and implementing the necessary socio-structural architecture to effectively address long-term mechanisms of diversion, release, and reentry. Austerity-driven approaches to shrinking budgets, new questioning of society’s addiction to punishment, and increasing public discomfort with mass incarceration create an opportunity to seriously address the epidemic of America’s graying prison population and to imbue the justice system with values and policies that are humane, cost-effective, and socially responsible. The time is now.

Read the full report here.