This submission was originally posted June 13, 2012 on the American Constitution Society blog.
prisoners are the least dangerous group of people behind bars but the
most expensive to incarcerate. Yet despite this truth, the number of
elderly prisoners is skyrocketing. Harsher sentences
for less serious crimes – one defining characteristic of our failed
“tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies – are responsible for this
staggering increase in the number of older prisoners, and taxpayers are
taking the hit.
You may be shocked to learn how much
money states are dumping into housing aging prisoners who pose little
safety risk. Today the American Civil Liberties Union released a report,
“At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,”
which details the growth of our aging prisoner population, the low
public safety threat elderly prisoners pose and the fiscal impact of
incarcerating them. Strikingly, the report estimates that the average
aging prisoner costs taxpayers about twice as much as the average
The report is co-authored by
the ACLU’s fiscal policy analyst and in-house economist, Will Bunting.
He conducted a fiscal impact analysis, weighing the cost of
incarcerating the average aging prisoner against the burden releasing
that same prisoner would impose on public benefit programs. Even taking
into consideration the cost of state payments for Medicaid, supplemental
security food stamps, energy assistance, and other public assistance
benefits, the report estimates that states could save $66,000 per year
for each aging person released from prison. To put this number in
context, the average American household makes $40,000. The money thus
saved could be redistributed to more worthwhile and cost-effective state
goals like education and infrastructure.
A look at the
grander scheme of things is even more startling: in 1988, the United
States spent about $11 billion on the entire corrections system. Today,
we spend about $16 billion annually on the aging prisoner population
As the number of prisoners in the United States
climbs ever higher, the number of aging prisoners is climbing even
faster. Between 1980 and 2010, the total number of people incarcerated
in this country grew by 400 percent. In that same timespan, the
population of prisoners age 55 and older grew by nearly 1,400 percent.
At the current rate of growth, the number of prisoners age 55 and older
will have increased 4,400 percent from 1981 to 2030 and will make up
fully a third of the nation’s prison population.
increase in the number of aging prisoners is not due to a spike in the
number of crimes committed by older people. There is no “elderly crime
wave.” And contrary to popular belief, older prisoners aren’t more
likely to have committed a serious crime. Rather, many elderly prisoners
are incarcerated for crimes committed in their youth for which they
received disproportionately long sentences, and many elderly prisoners
are in prison for nonviolent crimes. The current mentality of “lock ‘em
up and throw away the key” has led lawmakers to impose exceedingly harsh
penalties on individuals who commit low-level offenses, ensuring that
they stay behind bars well into age and often until they die. The adage
“let the punishment fit the crime” has given way to a reign of
disproportionality in sentencing that is nothing if not cruel and
For instance, in California, Leandro Andrade,
a father of three, received a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in
prison for two counts of shoplifting children’s videotapes valued at
$153. He had two prior offenses for misdemeanors. In Mississippi, Atiba
Parker was sentenced as a habitual offender to a total of 42 years in
prison for selling a total of .3 grams and possessing less than .1 grams
of crack cocaine. And also in Mississippi, the now-famous Scott
sisters, Jamie and Gladys, were sentenced to two consecutive life terms
for a robbery in which they stole $11 when they were teenagers.
many aging prisoners, Andrade, Parker and the Scott sisters are caught
in the net of our extreme sentencing laws enacted since the mid 70’s.
Politicians over the last quarter-century have held strong to the
conventional wisdom that being "tough on crime" will win elections and
appease the public's appetite for safety. To alleviate the public's
overblown fear, or even to slake a thirst for retribution, our lawmakers
have increasingly deemed more private acts criminal and doled out
harsher punishments for a generation. Law enforcement has selectively
enforced these laws against the "feared" Black and brown communities. In the end, we’re left with a massive, unsustainable prison population – and equally unsustainable aging prison population – unlike anything the world has ever seen.
aging prisoners posed a serious threat to public safety, the costs of
incarcerating them might be justified. But aging prisoners are in fact
highly unlikely to commit new crimes upon release. Research has
conclusively shown that by age 50 most people have significantly
outlived the years in which they are most likely to commit crimes. For
example, arrest rates drop to just over 2 percent at age 50 and are
almost nil at age 65. In other words, there is no value to the continued
incarceration of a large majority of our aging prisoners.
report provides a number of recommendations to legislators and
correctional leaders interested in meaningful reform. Given the fact
that public opinion is shifting toward a desire
for fewer people in prison, the time to implement these reforms is now.
The longer term solution requires political will to redesign our
extreme sentencing regime to reintroduce proportionality, and repeal or
reform habitual offender, mandatory minimum and truth-in-sentencing
laws. A more immediate recommendation is for states to empower parole
boards to determine which aging prisoners are worth the cost of
continued incarceration because they pose grave public safety threats
and which are not and can be safely released. In 2011, a bipartisan coalition in Louisiana passed just such a reform measure; if Louisiana – which leads the nation in incarceration – can take these steps, other states can surely follow suit.
today’s hobbled economy, legislators cannot continue wasting taxpayer
dollars by turning our prison system into a vast complex of nursing
homes. It is a moral and fiscal imperative to stem the explosion in the
aging prisoner population. Aging prisoners pose little threat to the
public’s safety and incarcerating them is breaking our collective bank.
Furthermore, it is inhumane to keep people locked up when there is no
compelling societal justification to do so. The tools for grappling with
this crisis are well within reach of legislators around the nation and
the time for reform has arrived.
Inimai M. Chettiar is Policy Counsel, and Vanita Gupta,
Deputy Legal Director, at the American Civil Liberties Union.