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January 29, 2015

Examining the sources of an ever-aging US prison population

NA-CE465_AGING_9U_20150128190609This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "U.S. Prisons Grapple With Aging Population: More Middle-Age Offenders Are Entering or Re-entering Facilities, Research Shows," explores why and how the population of incarceration nation is aging.  Here are excerpts:

Criminal-justice experts often attribute the older prison population to harsher sentencing policies and antidrug laws adopted in the 1980s.  The conventional wisdom is that enforcement of these laws led to longer sentences and more time served, which, in turn, is rapidly driving up the average age of inmates.

New research, however, offers an alternative view: The population of graying prisoners has exploded in recent years largely because more offenders ... are entering or re-entering prison in middle age.  It is a finding that could force states to rethink their efforts to tamp down on the escalating costs of caring for older inmates.

“People are getting arrested and sentenced to prison at a higher rate in their 30s, 40s and 50s than they used to,” said Shawn Bushway, a public policy professor at the University at Albany who co-wrote a coming study on the aging of those incarcerated.

The average inmate generally costs $20,000 to $30,000 a year to incarcerate.  Elderly prisoners, often defined as those older than 50, cost as much as three times more, researchers estimate, because they are more likely to have chronic medical conditions that require expensive treatments.

The population of U.S. prisoners over the age of 44 grew more than 8% annually from 1991 to 2011 — four times the rate of prisoners under the age of 35, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the research arm of the Justice Department.  The proportion of inmates 54 years or older nearly tripled in that time, from 3% to more than 8%.  At the end of 2013, about 270,000 U.S. inmates were 50 years or older, out of a total prisoner population of more than 1.5 million, according to BJS.

Mr. Bushway’s research, based on U.S. Census surveys of state prisoners spanning from 1974 to 2004, suggests the trend is linked to high rates of reported drug use among older inmates — particularly those who came of age in the 1980s ... and have cycled in and out of prison for much of their adult lives....

A separate study on aging prisoners, funded by the Bureau, analyzed data from South Carolina, North Carolina, New York and California, where the proportion of prisoners 50 years or older more than doubled since 2000.  The researchers, economist Jeremy Luallen and statistician Ryan Kling of consulting group Abt Associates, concluded that “rising admission age is the primary force driving the increase in the elderly group.”

The changing nature of offenses over time doesn’t explain the trend, nor do changes in sentencing severity, which had “virtually no impact” on the size of the group, they wrote. “Policy makers are missing an important part of the problem,” Mr. Luallen said in an interview. As states try to rein in costs of mass incarceration, Mr. Luallen said, they would do well to focus more on the flow of older people into the prison system than on reducing their sentences.

“Changing sentencing laws won’t affect” the increasing number of older prisoners, said John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, who studies mass incarceration. “You need to change the behavior of the district attorneys.”

The issue of recidivism continues to pose problems for state governments struggling to contain the costs of mass incarceration. A 2014 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study that examined state prisoners released in 2005 found that about two-thirds were arrested for a new crime within three years.

Harsher laws, such as those that mandate a life sentence after a person is convicted of three felonies, indisputably have led to more time behind bars for some. Bryce Peterson, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said longer sentences have “some effect” on the aging prison population. “It would be misleading to downplay that too much.” Mr. Peterson said he believed that Messrs. Luallen and Kling would have found that the length of time served in prison played a larger role in the graying of the inmate population had their study looked back further than 2000.

January 29, 2015 at 09:49 PM | Permalink

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States need to put the prisoners to work in quarries, chain gangs on roads, and garbage dumps.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 30, 2015 6:52:22 PM

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