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June 13, 2012

Big new ACLU report highlights the high cost of high numbers of elderly prisoners

Elderlyprisonreport_cover_0The ACLU has just released this important and timely new report, titled "At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly." The full report runs nearly 100 pages, but seems worth reading in full (especially after checking out thanks to the ACLU this slideshow and this video on the topic).  And the first seven paragraphs of the report's introduction highlights its basic findings and themes:

The United States is the largest incarcerator in the world, with 2.3 million people behind bars. Prisoners across the country are also getting older and experiencing all the same ailments that afflict those of the same age who are not behind bars. 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 paying for it.

From 1980 to 2010, the United States prison population grew over 11 times faster than the general population. During this time, the general population increased by 36%, while the state and federal prison population increased by over 400%. The number of elderly people in our prisons is growing even faster.

The graying prison population has become a national epidemic afflicting states around the country—from California to Missouri to Florida— further burdening already strained state budgets. According to the National Institute of Corrections, prisoners age 50 and older are considered “elderly” or “aging” due to unhealthy conditions prior to and during incarceration. This report uses that definition and finds that that there are 246,600 elderly prisoners behind bars across the country. To the extent possible, this report provides data for prisoners age 50 and older; in a few cases when data for this age group is not readily available, this report provides data on the next closest age range.

In 1981, there were 8,853 state and federal prisoners age 55 and older. Today, that number stands at 124,900, and experts project that by 2030 this number will be over 400,000, amounting to over one-third of prisoners in the United States. In other words, the elderly prison population is expected to increase by 4,400% over this fifty-year time span. This astronomical projection does not even include prisoners ages 50-54, for which data over time is harder to access.

The United States keeps elderly men and women locked up despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating that recidivism drops dramatically with age.  For example, in New York, only 7% of prisoners released from prison at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions within three years.  That number drops to 4% for prisoners age 65 and older. In contrast, this number is 16% for prisoners released at age 49 and younger. Further, most aging prisoners are not incarcerated for murder, but are in prison for low-level crimes. For example, in Texas, 65% of prisoners age 50 and older are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, and other nonviolent crimes.  This increasing warehousing of aging prisoners for low-level crimes and longer sentences is a nefarious outgrowth of the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies of the 1980s and 1990s.  Given the nation’s current overincarceration epidemic and persistent economic crisis, lawmakers should consider implementing parole reforms to release those elderly prisoners who no longer pose sufficient safety threats to justify their continued incarceration.

State and federal governments spend approximately $77 billion annually to run our penal system. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674%, substantially outpacing the growth of other government spending, and becoming the fourth-largest category of state spending.  These corrections costs are mainly spent on incarceration, and incarcerating aging prisoners costs far more than younger ones.  Specifically, this report finds that it costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older. To put that number into context, the average American household makes about $40,000 a year in income.

States can implement mechanisms to determine which aging prisoners pose little safety risk and can be released.  Releasing many of these individuals will ease the burden on taxpayers and reunite prisoners with their families to care for them.  This report conducts a fiscal impact analysis detailing the cost savings to states in releasing the average aging prisoner.  While some of these prisoners may turn to the government for their healthcare or other needs, government expenditures on released aging prisoners will be far cheaper than the costs of incarcerating them.  Based on statistical analyses of available data, this report estimates that releasing an aging prisoner will save states, on average, $66,294 per year per prisoner, including healthcare, other public benefits, parole, and any housing costs or tax revenue.  Even on the low end, states will save at least $28,362 per year per released aging prisoner.

June 13, 2012 at 02:12 PM | Permalink

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The elderly cost society whether they are in prison or out. The relevant question is whether it costs more to keep the elderly in prison or out.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Jun 14, 2012 11:21:48 AM

It would seem sensible to release elderly inmates. But, the word "non violent" is a catch. Every state, and especially the states which have adopted the Adam Walsh Act, consider a man ACCUSED of a sex offense as a violent offender. This is even if he was only accused of touching a minor in the wrong place. The AWA has a mandatory 25 to life for indecent liberties. Now, all the state, city and county prohibitions about where a sex offender can live have made it impossible for an elderly person accused of touching a minor, 25 years ago, to be released to a loving relative who would provide a home, food, and kindness. No, No, No, that 75 year old man might touch somebody!!!!! I heard a call in on Dr. Drew. The subject was how families deal with elderly Alzheimers or otherwise senile (even moderately) family members. One lady laughingly told about her elderly father, who now likes to "wink" at her and even gave her a "friendly pinch on the butt." Both the caller and Dr. Drew laughed, as though this was a cute problem. Then, Dr. Drew explained that the frontal lobes which provide good judgement are the "first to go" in any aging brain, so the caller should forgive the elderly man and to not be surprised or upset about it. But, if this were a released elderly 75 year old sex offender (or even one who had served his term) that man would be sent back to prison so fast your eyes would swim. We don't seem to be able to use common sense, the way we used to do. Sex offender hysteria, and the registry are insane, and it is an insanity that everybody has caught.

Posted by: Dana | Jun 15, 2012 5:40:06 PM

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