By Lori Gonzalez, Ph.D. (2021)
The U.S. prison population is aging- raising questions about just deserts and containing costs associated with housing older people. Those who are 55 and older have become the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population, growing 280 percent between 1999 and 2016 and projected to make up 1/3 of all prisoners by 2030 (CrimeReport.org, 2018; Pewtrusts.org, 2018; Prisonpolicy.org, 2020). Inmates who are 55 years or older currently make up 11 percent of the federal prison population and 12 percent of the state prison population (MarshallProject.org, 2020). The older prison population costs $16 billion per year with an older prisoner costing two times more than a younger prisoner (CrimeReport.org, 2018; Pewtrusts.org, 2018). This issue brief examines the causes behind the rising older prison population, the costs, and alternatives to lengthy incarceration.
Why is the Prison Population Aging?
Several factors have led to the increasing older prisoner population. Aggressive sentencing during the War on Drugs left drug offenders with lengthy terms. In 1986, for example, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed, establishing maximum sentences between 40 years and life depending on the quantity of drugs involved in the conviction, and mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of drug offenses involving certain classes and amounts (CJPF.org, 2021). This act removed judges’ ability to take into consideration an offender’s individual characteristics (e.g., likelihood of reoffending or remorse) and the other circumstances surrounding the offense (CJPF.org, 2021).
While harsher sentencing has not made a large impact on reducing crime, it has left 1 in 7 prisoners with life sentences (SentencingProject.org, 2020). A surprising percent of older offenders are serving life sentences where their most severe charge was for a property crime or drug-related crime. In 2013, for example, over 7 percent of prisoners aged 65 and older whose most severe offense was property related and 4 percent of those whose most severe offense was drug related were serving life sentences (U.S. Department of Justice, 2016). Over 30 percent of those whose most severe offense was categorized as violent were serving life terms (U.S. Department of Justice, 2016).
State sentencing policy has also increased the older prison population. Florida, for example, has the largest percentage (14 percent) of those 55 and older housed in state prisons largely attributable to its use of mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements without the use of parole (MarshallProject.org, 2020).
Another factor driving, to a lesser extent, the increase in the aging prisoner population is an increase in admission age. Typically, offending increases in adolescence, peaks at age 25, and then markedly declines as people “age out of crime.” However, the slight uptick in older adult offending is likely due to the aging of the U.S. population in general, rising rates of criminogenic factors such as divorce in mid-life, and changes in lifecourse patterns of recidivism (Litwok et al., 2019). Still, older people have much lower crime rates and recidivism (U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2017).
Older Inmates’ Health
Prisons are often not equipped to deal with the health issues that come with an aging population. Prisoners in their 50s have a physiological age that is 10-15 years greater than their actual age, largely attributable to poor health and a lack healthcare access before and after incarceration (MarshallProject, 2015). Physical and cognitive impairment are also greater among this population. Many experience mobility issues including difficulty with at least one activity of daily living (Skarupski et al., 2018). The ability to perform the mobility activities necessary for living in prison (e.g., walking in handcuffs, dropping to the floor, and hearing requests from staff) are more difficult for older prisoners (Skarupski et al., 2018). Between 40 and 60 percent of older prisoners are living with cognitive impairment or a mental illness (CrimeReport.org, 2018). Older prisoners are also more likely to have heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, liver disease, and emphysema compared to younger ones (Skarupski et al., 2018). Taken together, the worse health and comorbidities of the older population combined with prisons’ lack of infrastructure and health programs to assist aging prisoners increase overall cost with older prisoner’s healthcare costs being an average of 5 times higher than the healthcare costs of other prisoners (OIG.gov, 2015; PewTrusts.org, 2018).
The expense of incarcerating older people and their lower likelihood of recidivism has led to calls for compassionate release or the early release of certain categories of prisoners. The Federal Bureau of Prisons developed a compassionate release program and even after several adjustments to the release criteria, the program has yet to produce cost savings because the eligibility requirements are too narrow (OIG.gov, 2015). The COVID-19 pandemic has led to bipartisan calls from advocates for early release and for lowering the Bureau’s age requirement from age 60 to 55 (MarshallProject, 2020). Yet, those who are granted early release have difficulty finding housing, healthcare, and long-term care like nursing homes because of their former inmate status (Reese, 2019).
To fully address the issues surrounding the incarceration of older people, the Federal Bureau should review its eligibility criteria to increase the number of people who qualify while taking into consideration criminological findings on justice outcomes and recidivism rates. Future research should also focus on ways to make prisons more age friendly (given the reality of the growing aging population and cost), on compassionate release outcomes including quality of life and quality of care of former prisoners, the ability to secure housing and healthcare, and any costs or issues absorbed by other organizations (e.g. hospitals, homeless shelters, etc.) after release including costs to programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Achieving sentencing reform and prison reform, especially with regard to older offenders, will require answering questions about the purpose of the U.S.’ legal system, understanding which laws are most important to maintaining a just society, how socioeconomic and racial/ethnic disparities shape law and differential punishment, why certain communities are netted by the formal justice system more often than others, what society hopes to achieve when someone breaks the law (e.g., rehabilitation, punishment, crime control, etc.), and alternatives to the formal justice system.