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August 2, 2023

Prison Policy Initiative spotlights the "aging prison population"

The Prison Policy Initiative's by Emily Widra has produces this notable new briefing titled "The aging prison population: Causes, costs, and consequences." Here are some excerpts (click through for lots of helpful links and graphics):

New data from the Census Bureau reveals that the U.S. median age rose to a high of 38.9 years: an increase of three and half years in the last 23 years. The U.S. prison population is aging, too, and at a much faster rate than the nation as a whole — and older adults represent a growing portion of people who are arrested and incarcerated each year. The aging of the prison population is the result of a series of disastrous policy decisions in policing, sentencing, and reentry over roughly the last half-century. And while prisons and jails are unhealthy for people of all ages, older adults’ interactions with these systems are particularly dangerous, if not outright deadly....

According to the most recent available data on local jails across the U.S., from 2020 to 2021 — during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was particularly dangerous for older adults — the segment of the jail population aged 55 and older expanded by a greater proportion than any other age group, growing 24% compared to an average increase of 15% across all other age groups.

Meanwhile, older people make up five times as much of the prison population as they did three decades ago. From 1991 to 2021, the percentage of the state and federal prison population nationwide aged 55 or older swelled from 3% to a whopping 15%. This growth is seen even more acutely when looking at people serving life sentences: by 2020, 30% of people serving life sentences were at least 55 years old, with more than 61,400 older adults sentenced to die in prison....

State and federal sentencing policies from the 1970s to the 2000s resulted in what researchers have called “a prescription for an increase in older inmates: more prisoners, more prison beds, more lifers, and less parole.” State and federal laws enacted in this time period resulted in more incarcerated people serving longer sentences via policies that:

  • Increased sentence lengths and established mandatory minimums,
  • Mandated extremely long sentences for individuals convicted of three felony offenses (“three strikes” laws),
  • Required people to serve upwards of 85% of their sentence in prison (“truth in sentencing” laws) before becoming parole eligible,
  • Abolished parole,
  • Reduced the allowed time earned for good conduct, and
  • Instituted other “tough on crime” sentencing laws.

Longer and harsher sentences top the list of the most obvious mechanisms by which the national prison population exploded in the 1990s and 2000s, but they also created the problem of today’s aging prison population: many of the people who received these sentences are still behind bars now that they are twenty or thirty years older.

August 2, 2023 at 04:07 PM | Permalink


This PPI briefing misses the biggest piece of the puzzle. "From 1991 to 2021, the percentage of the state and federal prison population nationwide aged 55 or older swelled from 3% to a whopping 15%." Yes, but that percentage change reflects an increase in the number of prisoners over-55 and a massive decrease in youth incarceration. As shown in https://ricknevin.com/update-continuing-trend-toward-zero-youth-incarceration/ "The prison incarceration rate for men ages 18-19 fell 88% from 2001-2021" and "male incarceration rates also fell 70% for ages 20-24, 52% for ages 25-29, 38% for ages 30-24, and 22% for ages 35-39." That massive fall in youth incarceration can be entirely explained by massive declines in youth offending.

It is really frustrating that people on both sides of the crime and incarceration debate just ignore the astonishing declines in youth offending and incarceration. This has spectacular implications for future crime and incarceration trends because every expert on both sides of the debate agrees adult onset offending is extremely rare.

Doug - Do you know of any research focusing on the astonishing decline in youth crime, including the collapse of "age-crime curve" in criminal offending?

Posted by: Rick Nevin | Aug 3, 2023 12:45:47 AM

One issue that academic writers fail to consider is that a significant number of long-term inmates have spent so many decades in prison, and most didn't have W-2 jobs or pay into Social Security and Medicare during any "working career". Thus, when they are released or paroled from prison in their 60s and older, they have no Social Security pension check, they don't qualify to apply for Social Security disability and they have no Medicare coverage, so they have to apply for Medicaid. I know an inmate who served 37 years in Federal prison, who is no working 7 days per week in his 70s, just to keep a roof over his head and pay for food and a car. Notably, he has not applied for Food Stamps. Policymakers need to analyze this group and consider remedies or some kind of Safety Net for older released felons.

Posted by: James Gormley | Aug 3, 2023 3:51:13 PM

This 70-something former inmate earns his living trimming the hooves of horses and mules ($25 per hoof) and shoeing horses. These are skills he learned in his 20s, before becoming a major marijuana cultivator (farms from Virginia to Texas) in his early 30s. He originally had a 5-year plea deal and had been sentenced to 5 years. The DEa and FBI came to him in prison and wanted him to cooperate against his former girlfriend and his brother, who was an attorney. When he refused to cooperate against them, they took him back to Court and rescinded his 5-year plea deal. He was then sentenced to about 40 years.

Posted by: James Gormley | Aug 3, 2023 3:57:05 PM

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