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May 29, 2012

"Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary at The Crime Report. The piece was authored by Jamie Fellner, who is the Senior Advisor to the US Program of Human Rights Watch and author of the report "Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States."  Here are excerpts from the commentary:

As the US confronts a growing population of geriatric prisoners, it is time to reconsider whether they really need to be locked up.  Prison keeps dangerous people off the streets. But how many prisoners whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age are dangerous?

According to prison statistics, hardly any.   In Ohio, 26.7 percent of former prisoners commit new crimes within three years of their release from prison.   But only 5.6 percent of those released between the ages of 65 and 69 — and 2.9 percent of those released between the ages of 70 and 74 — commit new crimes.  Of those released at age 75 or older, none revert to criminal behavior.

In New York, you can count on two hands the number of older prisoners who have gone on to commit violent crimes after release.  Of 1,511 prisoners aged 65 and older when released between 1995 and 2008, only 8 were returned to prison for committing a violent felony.  Among the released older prisoners were 469 who had originally been sent to prison because of a violent crime.  Only one has returned to prison because of a new crime of violence.

These statistics quantify what criminal justice professionals know from experience: as a group, released older prisoners are not likely to pose much of a risk to the public.  The risk is no doubt even less if the released prisoners are ill or infirm....

Wholly apart from the effects of age and infirmity, years in prison also leave older prisoners with little desire to pick up a gun or hit the streets looking for trouble even if they were physically able to do so.  They want to spend their remaining time on earth with family and friends.  They do not want to die behind bars.

Ensuring just deserts for those who harm others is a legitimate criminal justice goal.  But age and infirmity can change the calculus of when the time served is long enough.  At some point in a prisoner’s life, parole supervision and perhaps restrictions on movement (e.g. home confinement) may suffice as a cost-effective and sensible punishment.

May 29, 2012 at 09:26 PM | Permalink


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all these articles keep asking the wrong question.

The question should not be "do they belong in prison" Of course they do they comitted a crime and were given a legal sentence"

The question should be "Is it smart at this time in their condition and abiltiy to be a THREAT to others should they be in prison!"

And that unfortunatly should be made on a CASE by CASE basis.

Posted by: rodsmith | May 30, 2012 1:32:40 AM

When you see stats like this from a source whose whole aim is to reduce the number of people in prison, you have to ask what's missing.

What's missing here is any attempt to break the overall numbers into smaller categories. He makes no distinction between violent crime and nonviolent crime (maybe we really want to keep the triple rapist in prison though we don't care about the shoplifter). He makes no distinction between first time offenders and severe recidivists (maybe the risk from the latter is s lot worse than the former). He makes no distinction between senior citizens who became seniors at the tail end of a long sentence and those who started serving their term when they were already elderly (if someone commits a crime at an advanced age then they may need to serve a considerable sentence despite their age -- otherwise where's the deterrence?)

In short, by all means let's consider early release for some of the elderly -- but let's not base the final decision on sloppy, slapdash statistics like the ones here.

Posted by: Need better stats | May 30, 2012 11:00:08 AM

If the offender is an icky perv they will always be dangerous to children no matter how frail they may appear. however, prison may not be the proper venue for them. Naturally Erika's Icky Perv Solutions, a global leader in turning sex offender hysteria into profit has a solution - namely secure icky perv only retirement homes. Such homes would provide the security of the prison and provide for the needs of the aging sex offender population.

If such a proposal is too expensive, aging sex offenders behind bars should be offered the option of receiving surgical castration and slicing off of the penis in order to obtain release from prison. Such proposal would assure that icky pervs and sex offenders are properly punished and incapacitated from further rapes of children but at a lower cost than costly prisons.

Erika :)

Posted by: Erika | May 30, 2012 11:22:30 AM

Obviously, prison is probably not the place for almost anyone who is too old to walk.

But would releasing an 80-year-old man who's been in prison since, say, the 1970s, without an extensive support system, be any more humane than keeping them behind bars?

If we just decide to say "Alright, gramps. You're free. Good luck!" we'll end up with a huge number of "Brooks was here" moments.

Posted by: SFJD | Jun 28, 2012 1:37:48 PM

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