Americans are increasingly learning about the problem of mass incarceration and the astronomical costs of our country’s incarceration habit – taxpayers every year pay a staggering $39 billion to keep people imprisoned. Here’s a solution to that problem that makes a lot of sense: how about simply releasing elderly inmates? The average price tag for incarcerating elderly inmates is sometimes more than double the cost of incarcerating young prisoners because elderly inmates need far more medical care and accommodations, and that runs up the bill. On the flip side, the recidivism rate for elderly ex-offenders is very low. This is not surprising: when you think armed robber or murderer, the image is of a young hot-head, not a geriatric assailant. Brain development science supports this assumption – people tend to mellow with age and engage in less criminal activity. So, one easy way to dent our country’s mass incarceration problem and inject some compassion into the criminal justice system would be to consider releasing elderly inmates.
Prisoners 50 and older are the fastest-growing population in federal prison, and when you consider the history, you can see why. Mass incarceration in America began skyrocketing in the 1970’s and 80’s when mandatory sentencing laws required judges to hand down longer prison sentences. In particular, the “war on drugs” of the Reagan years meant lots of long prison sentences for drug offenders—many of whom were nonviolent. Often, judges or juries were appalled by the lengthy sentences, but the law did not allow a judge’s discretion, so lengthy sentences were issued. Most of those offenders were people in their 20s and 30s. And those prisoners, primarily nonviolent offenders, are now greying the prison population. Many of the nation’s elderly prisoners are disabled, bedridden, suffering from dementia, or terminally ill, but their incarceration persists.
Research indicates that people tend to age out of crime by about 25, so there is a very diminishing return in continuing to incarcerate people after they turn 50. The reality is that people in their 50s and older do not pose a huge threat to public safety, particularly since so many of these prisoners were incarcerated for non-violent offense in the first place. And our prisons are just ill-equipped to handle the problems of the elderly. The Justice Department has found that the Bureau of Prisons is often unable to provide adequate and humane housing and care for infirm, elderly prisoners. Prisoners with documented medical needs or those who have symptoms requiring a diagnosis often wait months or years for medical appointments. Elderly prisoners with limited mobility are often housed in overcrowded facilities and may be forced to climb to upper bunks when lower bunks are already assigned or to contend with flights of stairs in order to get to their “handicapped-accessible” cells.
Loevy & Loevy’s Prisoner Rights Project, led by attorney Sarah Grady, takes on prisons for their failure to promptly and humanely address prisoners’ medical needs, and the cases she sees about the lack of adequate care in prison are astonishing. For instance, she represents an older Alabama prisoner who has suffered from a painful degenerative hip disease since 2004. When the prison finally sought consultation from an orthopedic specialist, the specialist recommended a total hip replacement, which was not surprising, since the inmate could barely walk a few steps and was in constant pain. The prison has refused to provide the surgery and instead responded to the medical recommendation by inexplicably reducing the inmate’s needed pain medication. This is not an isolated issue. Everything about that type of treatment is wrong: it is morally wrong to deny prisoners needed medical care; and it is expensive and inefficient for our prisons to double as sub-standard medical facilities or poorly run nursing homes.
Compassionate release of elderly prisoners is the obvious solution that benefits taxpayers and nonviolent elderly prisoners. In 2013, the Department of Justice called for expansion of compassionate release for the elderly and infirm, but the Bureau of Prisons has dragged its feet and not made significant progress on this goal. In 2015, only 110 elderly inmates were released on compassion grounds, a mere drop in the bucket. The prison population is aging, and this problem is only going to get worse. Meaningful reform is needed.