Why Do We Keep Our Aging Prisoners Behind Bars?

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Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr

The evolving figures on US prison populations represents both good news and bad news. The good news is that US incarceration rates are no longer increasing, and have even declined slightly.

The bad news is that we still far outpace the rest of the world in unnecessarily locking people up.

We don’t lock up more people because the US is a more dangerous place, we lock up more people primarily because we’ve made policy decisions over the last 30 years that give prosecutors enormous discretion and we have succumbed to cultural and political will for punishment that is closely linked to our continuing struggles with institutional racism and implicit bias.

Our incarceration rates also demonstrate an unwillingness to meaningfully discuss and change our approach to people charged with violent crimes.

But a new report on recidivism data recently released by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) suggests that there are two places we could be making a significant difference, simultaneously reducing future crime and the costs of mass incarceration. The report shows a clear pathway that could create a significantly less expensive system that is fairer, and keeps everyone safer.

While young adults under age 24 are at high risk of recidivism, adults age 55 and above are at low risk for recidivism. We currently spend an incredible amount of money warehousing older and sicker low-risk people, while not spending what we should on effective intervention and re-entry resources for young people.

If we inverted that ratio, releasing the significant portion of older incarcerated people who can safely be released and putting those savings into strategies that would help reduce crimes committed by young adults, we would be much more successful in making society safer and healthier for today and tomorrow.

Marc Schindler

Marc Schindler

We know that young adults account for a disproportionately high percentage of violent crime, and the BJS data show that young adults also have the most difficulty returning to the community, with 51.8 percent being arrested in just the first year. In the Justice Policy Institute’s Improving Approaches to Serving Young Adults in the Justice System, we explore the tailored community-based services that build on the strengths of the young person to provide the best chance of success.

If we chose to implement developmentally appropriate prevention programs and provide research-based reentry approaches to successfully get youth beyond their first year of release, we would do much a much better job of preventing young adults from committing crimes. By tailoring services that provide sufficient education, employment opportunities, and health and mental health supports, states would not only lower recidivism rates, but also save a substantial amount of its budget.

Estimates show that each young adult who avoids returning to the justice system saves taxpayers $ two million. That’s something both the right and left can get on board with.

Contrary to young adults, older individuals, particularly those 55 and older, were re-arrested at much lower rates. This is consistent with previous research in the field. For example, in New York, only four percent of people age 65 and older were re-convicted; while in Virginia, only 1.3 percent of people older than 55 were re-convicted.

The research is clear: there is minimal negative impact on public safety from releasing older people from prison.

These findings are also consistent with an organic experiment playing out in Maryland. In what is known as the “Unger” case, almost 200 people who had been convicted of violent crimes and sentenced to life were released following a 2012 court ruling that jury instructions in their cases were constitutionally flawed.

Jeremy Kittridge

Jeremy Kittridge

With an average age of 64 upon release, and having served an average of 40 years, they have had a recidivism rate of less than one percent.

Part of the Unger defendants’ achievement can be credited to the re-entry support provided before and after their release. Their overwhelming success has been acknowledged by both legislators and prosecutors, who have said “the Ungers are a perfect example that you can age out of violent crime.”

Despite the incredible success rates among older people safely released from prison, we continue to annually spend approximately $16 billion to incarcerate this population. The financial impact will increase substantially with population projections for elderly incarcerated people to hit 400,000 by 2030. We have barely touched the surface of the potential savings that could be reinvested by safely returning older incarcerated individuals to the community.

We’re currently operating secure nursing homes for people who pose almost no threat to public safety; we should, instead, be better utilizing those resources by targeting services for a higher risk young adult population and thereby reducing crime.

Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). Jeremy Kittridge is a research and policy associate with JPI. They welcome comments from readers.

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