Mass Incarceration of the Elderly is Rising Cause for Concern
Date:  10-05-2012

Questions are raised about the necessity of insisting that old, frail, and incapacitated people die behind bars
Much has been written about the plight of America’s elderly prisoners. Reentry Central has reported on how harsh laws written without thought to the inevitable consequences further down the line have been responsible for the unprecedented amount of elderly inmates living and dying behind bars.

Many of the elderly prisoners pose no threat to society if released. Studies have shown that it would be more cost effective for states to release these chronically ill inmate-patients, but correctional departments across the country seem reluctant to do so. A recent article in Mother Jones gives readers a startling look on how this reluctance is playing out financially. click here to go to website

The Mother Jones article refers to a report by the ACLU, At America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly which can be read in full by clicking on the link at the end of this article. While photos in the report are enough to tug on the heartstrings of even the most cynical among us, the report is not primarily a call for compassion but for fiscal responsibility and accountability to American taxpayers.

Findings from At America’s Expense include:

Demographics of a Rapidly Graying Prison Population

  • There is an overwhelming consensus among correctional experts, criminologists, and the National Institute of Corrections that 50 years of age is the appropriate point marking when a prisoner becomes “aging” or “elderly.” The lack of appropriate healthcare and access to healthy living prior to incarceration, added to the heavy stresses of life behind bars, accelerates the aging process of prisoners so that they are actually physically older than average individuals. This report therefore uses age 50 and older to define the population of aging prisoners and provides data on this age group. In a few cases, when data for this age group is not accessible, this report provides data on the next closest age range.

  • Approximately 16% of the national prison population is age 50 and older. There are several jurisdictions with far higher percentages of aging prisoners including West Virginia (20%), New Hampshire (20%), Massachusetts (19%), Florida (18%), and Texas (18%). Approximately 13.5% of federal prisoners are age 50 and older.

  • There are 246,600 aging prisoners nationwide. The four jurisdictions with the highest actual number of prisoners age 50 and older are California (27,680), Texas (27,455), Florida (17,980), and the federal prison system (25,160). These four jurisdictions comprise 43% of the nation’s aging prisoners.

  • The population of prisoners age 55 and older is expected to increase by 4,400% from 1981 to 2030. In 1981, there were only 8,853 prisoners age 55 and older. Corrections experts project that, by 2030, there will be over 400,000 such prisoners, amounting to one-third of the prison population. This astronomical projection does not even include those prisoners ages 50-54 and is therefore a lower projection than the actual future elderly prison population.

  • This high growth rate is found in individual jurisdictions as well. The elderly prisoner population increased, on average, by 145% between 1997 and 2007 in 16 southern states—a much higher growth rate than the total prison population growth rate in those states. For example, in Florida, the number of elderly prisoners grew 130% compared to 36% growth in the total prison population. Texas had a 110% growth in the number of elderly prisoners and 15% growth in the total prison population; those percentages for Maryland are 124% and 2%, respectively.

  • As is the case with the overall American prison population, America’s elderly prisoners are overwhelmingly male. Women make up a mere 6% of aging prisoners.

  • White prisoners comprise the largest segment of aging prisoners (42%). However, Black (33%) and Hispanic (15%) aging prisoners are overrepresented, meaning they make up a far higher percentage of the aging prisoner population than they do the general U.S. population.

    Lower Public Safety Risks of Aging Prisoners

  • The elderly prison population is increasingly comprised of individuals sentenced to prison for long periods of time (20 years or more) and increasingly remain in prison into old age. In 1979, only 2% of aging prisoners fell into this category nationwide. Data collected from jurisdictions shows that this percentage is far higher now. For example, the percentage of aging prisoners falling into this category is now 15% in Mississippi and 19% in Ohio. Data collected from Florida, New Hampshire, Texas, and Utah show similar shifts in prison populations. Many individuals who would have been sentenced to shorter periods of incarceration for repeat crimes before 1979 are now caught in the net of later-enacted habitual offender laws and given punishments of 20 years or more.

  • The majority of aging prisoners are not incarcerated for murder, but are in prison for low-level crimes. In fact, many aging prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. For example, in Texas, 65% of aging prisoners are in prison for nonviolent drug crimes, property crimes, and other nonviolent crimes. In North Carolina, 26% of prisoners age 50 and older are in prison under habitual offender laws or for drug crimes. Another 14% are in prison for fraud, larceny, burglary, breaking and entering, and traffic and public order violations.

  • The percentage of aging prisoners who were first imprisoned after they turned 50 is declining. In 1979, 41% of aging prisoners fit into this category nationwide. In Ohio, this percentage now stands at 25%. Likewise, in Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire, this percentage dropped to 4-8% in 2012.

  • Research has conclusively shown that by age 50 most people have significantly outlived the years in which they are most likely to commit crimes. For example, arrest rates drop to just over 2% at age 50 and are almost 0% at age 65.

  • There is also overwhelming evidence that prisoners age 50 and older are far less likely to return to prison for new crimes than their younger cohorts. For example, only 7% of New York state prisoners released at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions; this number was 4% for prisoners released at age 65 and older. In Virginia, only 1.3% of prisoners age 55 and older returned to prison for a new conviction.

  • The statistics taken together strongly suggest that the increasing incarceration of aging prisoners is not due to any “elderly crime wave” but rather due to younger prisoners who are sentenced to longer terms in prison, often for not so serious crimes.
  • Click here to read more.