Experts often attribute the older prison population to harsher sentencing policies and antidrug laws dating from the 1980s. The conventional wisdom is that enforcement of these laws led to longer sentences and more time served, which drives up the average age of inmates. The Wall Street Journal says new research offers an alternative view: The population of graying prisoners has exploded largely because more offenders are entering or re-entering prison in middle age. The finding could force states to rethink efforts to cut 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 University of Albany. Inmates cost $20,000 to $30,000 a year to incarcerate. Prisoners older than 50 cost as much as three times more because they are more likely to have medical conditions that require expensive treatments. A separate study on aging prisoners 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. Economist Jeremy Luallen and statistician Ryan Kling of Abt Associates said “rising admission age is the primary force driving the increase in the elderly group.”