Census Bureau and Reform Group Note Dramatic Rise in Older Americans Behind Bars 

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By Kaveh Nasseri

WASHINGTON, DC – New data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals a dramatic rise in the age of the U.S. prison population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

PPI said several factors are to blame for this trend, including a number of poor policy decisions pertaining to policing and sentencing, noting in order to address the core issues and reduce the current number of incarcerated elders, it is imperative to reassess existing policies, end extremely harsh sentencing, make healthcare as accessible as possible and expand release options and alternatives for the elderly population.

According to PPI, the number of arrests involving people 55 or older has grown from three percent in 2000 to eight percent in 2021. And, the percentage of older Americans in prison has grown from three percent in 1991 to 15 percent in 2021.

The situation was only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, said PPI, adding, “During the COVID-19 pandemic the segment of the jail population aged 55 and older expanded by a greater proportion than any other age group.”

Tough on crime measures that manifest themselves in policing and sentencing policies may be to blame for these concerning developments, said PPI.

“Policing disproportionately targets populations that include many older adults: unhoused people, people who use drugs or alcohol, and people with cognitive disabilities. Drug-related arrests among people aged 50 and older nearly doubled from 2000 to 2018, indicating a dramatic increase in criminal legal system involvement,” added PPI.

Meanwhile, increasingly long and harsher prison sentences led to a surge in the national prison population, particularly in the 1900s and 2000s with sentencing policies mandating “extremely long sentences for individuals convicted of three felony offenses,” writes PPI.

The dangers of aging in prison, meanwhile, have been well-documented, and while prisons are dangerous spaces for people of all ages, they pose an especially grave health risk for older Americans, according to PPI.

“A robust body of research shows that incarceration itself accelerates aging: people face more chronic and life-threatening illnesses earlier than we would expect outside of prison, and physiological signs of aging occur in people younger than expected,” PPI said.

The advocate added that such problems are exacerbated by the issue of limited resources and inaccessibility in prison healthcare. While such healthcare is incredibly expensive for state and federal governments alike, it is rarely adequate for treating prisoners.

While there are tools in place to address the prison aging crisis, they have been severely underutilized in recent years, said PPI, adding parole is one such tool, but trends in the rate at which parole is granted make the situation appear bleak.

According to PPI, “parole grant rates are highest for people between the ages of 31 and 35 (43 percent) with rates declining as age increases: people over 60 are paroled at a rate of 28 percent. Older adults serving long sentences are often denied parole, with boards focusing on the nature of their original offense instead of their preparedness for reentry.”

Compassionate release or medical parole is another mechanism that could be used to help elderly prisoners, suggested PPI, but noted the difficulty inherent in the application process makes it difficult for inmates to be accepted for such a release.

Another issue concerns the possible biases of those who decide whether someone is released, explained PPI, noting “decisions about medical eligibility for release are often filtered through state parole boards, whose membership often includes former corrections officials, former parole or probation officers, and former prosecutors.”

In short, PPI concludes it is clear that the crisis in prisoner aging is rooted in a series of harmful policy measures, and that society can reduce the average age of the prison population by using helpful, existing release mechanisms in the form of parole and compassionate release.

Instead, according to PPI, “States should follow the lead of advocates who are fighting to reduce police encounters, end draconian sentencing like life without parole, and expand release mechanisms like elder parole.”

PPI said reducing the number of arrests is essential, and decriminalizing behaviors that lead to the arrest of older Americans, such as homelessness and substance abuse, can counter rising arrest rates and incarceration numbers.

PPI also suggested states can expand their social safety nets and establish means of support for recently released older adults, whether by promoting healthcare access and health insurance or by simplifying the Social Security application process.

While the rise in older people behind bars is an unfortunate reality, these solutions can address the key issues and support incarcerated elders, added PPI, promoting the welfare of all.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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