November 14, 2014

The Trends and Implications of Aging Prisoners

The percentage of inmates over age 50 in California state prisons has more than doubled, to approximately 21%, in just over 10 years, according to a November 2014 Governing Magazine article.  The article attributes this trend to (1) an aging prison population and (2) a 2011 prison system realignment that sent lower level and typically younger offenders to county jails.  Over the past few decades, federal and state prison populations have also increased dramatically, with a demographic shift to older prisoners, the article stated.

A recent Urban Institute analysis, which the article cites, looked at the trends and implications of aging prisoners in the largest correction system in the United States—the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The aging trend is most prominent among older female prisoners, violent and property crime convicts, and non-Hispanic white prisoners.

The analysis points out that older prisoners require special attention that tends to drive up operational costs. Many suffer from diabetes, heart failure or other chronic diseases, and are often vulnerable to victimization.   To address this predicament, the Urban Institute recommends policy and research that includes:
  • identifying the age at which older prisoners pose minimal risk of recidivism and can be more cost-effectively managed through noncustodial means;
  • expanding data-driven knowledge on older prisoners, including estimates for the operating costs of incarceration; 
  • monitoring of older prisoners’ population growth; and
  • developing cost-management plans for aging prisoners.
The proportion of prisoners age 50 and older is projected to increase at a fast rate and could make up nearly 28% of the prison population by 2019, according to the analysis. OLR Report 2013-R-0166 provides examples of initiatives to cope with the aging prison population in California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.  Connecticut law allows the release of inmates with serious medical conditions, including age-related illnesses, under certain circumstances (see OLR Report 2014-R-0213).