The graying of our prison population is a national epidemic afflicting states around the country—from California to Missouri to Florida—and further burdening already strained state budgets. Our extreme sentencing policies and a growing number of life sentences have effectively turned many of our correctional facilities into veritable nursing homes—and taxpayers are footing the steadily increasing bill.
Today, the American Civil Liberties Union released a new report, entitled “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,” which provides a comprehensive in-depth examination of the United States’s population of elderly or aging prisoners. The report reveals that far too many of our tax dollars are going toward keeping elderly prisoners behind bars, even after there is no justifiable public safety reason to do so. The report finds that states on average will save more than $66,000 per elderly prisoner released per year, even if those prisoners rely on public assistance for support upon release—this analysis includes any state payments for Medicaid, supplemental security food stamps, energy assistance, and other public assistance benefits. To put that dollar amount into context: the average annual income for the typical American household is about $40,000.
Elderly prisoners are the fastest-growing group of prisoners in the United States. Using the National Institute of Corrections’s definition of an aging prisoner as 50 years of age and older, the report finds there are some 246,000 aging prisoners behind bars in this country. Today we have more than 14 times as many prisoners over age 55 as we did in1981. Moreover, experts project that by the year 2030 prisoners age 55 and older will comprise more than one-third of all prisoners in the United States. Unfortunately, these projections are not available for the population between the ages of 50-54, which means the actual aging prison population will be even larger in the future than projected.
We are in the midst of a dramatic rise in prisoner age, a trend that will continue to skyrocket unless there is equally dramatic reform. This fastest-growing group of prisoners is also our most expensive. Because of the health care and physical needs of aging prisoners, our prisons find themselves ill equipped to handle their aging prisoner population—prisoners who cost twice as much to incarcerate as younger prisoners.
Imprisoning more of the most costly group of prisoners might make sense if these prisoners were particularly dangerous. But that is not the case. As documented in the ACLU report, research conclusively shows that elderly prisoners are, in fact, the least dangerous of any group of prisoners. Nationally, elderly prisoners on average return to prison for new convictions (for any crimes) at a rate between 5 percent to 10 percent. In many states, this percentage is even lower.
The report also revealed that the increasing warehousing of aging prisoners for low-level crimes and for longer prison terms is an outgrowth of the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies that have been enacted since the mid-1970s. The ACLU report comes on the heels of a report by the Pew Center on the States, which found that the average length of prison sentences has increased by 36 percent since 1990. Our current criminal justice laws and policies have forced an increasing number of people into prison during their youth and then kept them there for 20 years or more, long into old age and much longer than proportionality requires.
In 1979 only 2 percent of elderly prisoners nationwide fell into this category—sentenced while young and kept behind bars into old age. The ACLU report, which was based on 17 months of in-depth research, collected new data from individual departments of correction showing that this percentage is now far higher. In Ohio, for example, the percentage of elderly prisoners who have been incarcerated since they were young is now 19 percent and in Mississippi it is 15 percent. Many individuals who would have been sentenced to shorter prison terms for repeat crimes prior to 1979 are now caught in the net of later-enacted habitual offender and tough on crime laws such as the three strikes statutes and are given punishments of 20 years or more for relatively low-level crimes, primarily drug offenses.
Some states like Louisiana have already recognized their growing elderly prisoner population as a signal that it is time to change their approach to incarceration and parole. Last year, a bipartisan coalition in the Bayou State came together to enact a conditional release program to give prisoners of a certain age the right to request a parole hearing. At the hearing, the parole board can use risk-assessment tools grounded in science to decide whether the prisoner can be safely released. Such laws allow states to safely depopulate their prisons of elderly prisoners and save on incarceration costs. The program is voluntary, meaning that elderly prisoners have the right to apply for it or choose not to, thereby avoiding the prospect of indigent elderly prisoners being forced into homelessness by release from prison. If, for some reason, an elderly prisoner wanted to stay in prison instead of being released they could choose to do so.
With public opinion shifting toward a desire for fewer people in prison, the time is right for states to begin implementing specific policies and developing mechanisms to determine which elderly prisoners pose little safety risk and therefore can be released from prison. Equally important, we must reform our sentencing laws so that fewer prisoners grow old behind bars. Governments should not waste money even in economically prosperous times. More urgently, governments should not spend precious dollars when budgets are tight and deficits are staggeringly high, especially on ill-conceived policies that do not work or are not needed.
If we continue warehousing the elderly at the projected growth rate, states may be forced to choose between funding incarceration of the old or funding schools and infrastructure for our youth. This column and the more detailed ACLU report will arm our nation’s lawmakers with the tools to make smarter decisions and enable them to enact reforms that will reduce prison costs without compromising public safety. What’s more, we believe our recommendations can find strong support within communities and from legislators on both sides of the aisle.
Inimai Chettiar is a Leadership Fellow at the Center for American Progress and is a policy counsel at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union where she coordinates the legislative program to end mass incarceration. As of July 2012, she will be the director of justice programs at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Ms. Chettiar is a co-author of “At America’s Expense.”
Will Bunting is a fiscal policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. He works to ensure that rigorous economics and statistical methods are used in policymaking and in creating ACLU policy recommendations. He holds a doctorate in economics from Yale University and a law degree from the New York University School of Law. He is also a co-author of “At America’s Expense.”