The Graying of America’s Prisons: Part Three


12.13.09copcarIn Part 3 of our Special Report on the elderly in America's prisons, we examine a related but often overlooked development: criminal justice personnel are getting older, too.

As America's population ages, so does the labor force–including those on the front lines of the justice system. The United Nations has projected that the median age of Americans may increase to as much as 46.3 years by 2050, compared with 30 years in 1950.

Our aging demographic will shape the way criminal justice officials recruit new officers for police departments, prisons and jails, as well as how they retain personnel.

A study we concluded last year, shows that the median age of U.S. police officers increased five years to 38.7 years between 1991 and 2008, while the median age for correctional officers increased by seven years to 40.8 . [See Footnote 1] Many of these criminal justice personnel are baby boomers who are now eligible for retirement. Replacing these workers will become increasingly difficult: population projections from the Census Bureau show that the proportion of the population aged 25-44–the age group representing over two-thirds (68 percent) of all patrol officers in 2008–will decrease over the next four decades.

This shrinking pool of potential workers will force law enforcement and corrections agencies to shift their hiring and retention practices. Their job will be complicated by the increasing competition for bright and capable personnel among the military, justice systems, and corporations, who all recruit from the same pool of job candidates. Justice systems are further challenged because they require workers with high levels of physical fitness, integrity, commitment, and clean drug-use histories. These expectations clash with the fact that large numbers of young persons have experimented with drugs, owe more money, and have high levels of obesity–all potential disqualifiers for law enforcement careers.

Commitment Issues

Moreover, younger workers today are far less likely to make a long-term commitment to an organization than their parents or grandparents. Thus, the shrinking number of potential workers coincides with an exodus of baby boomers from the justice system.

At the same time, more retirements and more competition for workers may create opportunities for women and members of minority groups. While these candidates have been actively recruited for years they still represent a fairly small proportion of criminal justice personnel, and it is sometimes difficult to retain these officers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that only 11 percent of police officers in 2003 were women. Minority group members represented slightly less than one-quarter (23.6 percent) of all police officers, which more closely mirrors their representation in the U.S. population. Members of these groups may already be capitalizing on these career opportunities and from 1999 to 2007, for example, the number of women employed in corrections increased by 40 percent.

In addition to creating challenges for recruiting, we foresee a number of possible changes in the way that justice systems manage their personnel. First, there may be an easing of mandatory retirement policies. The federal government's mandatory retirement at age 57 policy was enacted half a century ago, and it is inconsistent with the productivity and fitness of today's mature workers. A landmark study commissioned by the U.S. government, for example, showed that older law enforcement officers who made positive lifestyle choices, especially in terms of physical training, were in better condition than some of their younger counterparts.

In addition, law enforcement practices have changed, and an officer's intellectual abilities, technological knowledge, and interpersonal skills are as important to their job performance as their ability to restrain a suspect. In recognition of those facts, some jurisdictions have recently relaxed compulsory retirement programs for public safety employees, but there is a gap in our knowledge about overall state and county trends.

Second, there may be a need to change models of staff supervision, especially relating to strategies to fully engage younger workers to aid in their retention. Generation Y employees (those born from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s), who are now entering law enforcement careers in larger numbers, are speculated to have less commitment to an organization, a greater sense of entitlement, are easily bored, and unhappy with promotions based on seniority rather than skills– all factors that may clash with the traditional operations of law enforcement and correctional agencies. While these traits may be based on stereotypes, they do underscore the importance of acknowledging the intergenerational differences of today's law enforcement officers in day-to-day supervision as well as the development of retention strategies.

With the current economic downturn, some criminal justice personnel may stay in their careers for longer than they had planned in order to enhance their retirement benefits. This may further increase the age of officers on the job. As a result, there is one step that agencies could take without changing regulations: making wellness programs available from the academy to retirement would enhance officers' physical and psychological health throughout their careers, and might ensure that the aging of criminal justice employees has a minimal impact on their work.

Rick Ruddell is Associate Professor of Correctional and Juvenile Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. G. Larry Mays is Regents Professor of Criminal Justice at New Mexico State University.


1. Statistics from 1991 and 1996 include detectives and supervisors, who are typically older, whereas the 2008 statistics report the median ages of patrol officers and front-line correctional officers. Removing supervisors from 1991 and 1996 would result in a more pronounced age increase during this 17-year era.

Photo by Jo Naylor via Flickr.

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