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Release the Real Low Risk Prisoners

As the state of California responds to the recent Supreme Court decision ordering the release of 30,000 or more prisoners, there needs to be an awareness of what kinds of prisoners pose the greatest risk of returning to crime. 


It always seems to be the conventional wisdom that those serving time for property, drug and other non-violent offenders, plus parole violators, are considered to be "low-risk" offenders.  Thus any discussion of what kinds of prisoners that ought to be released tends to focus on this group.  Yet, time and time again it has been proven that it is these kinds of offenders who have the highest rate of recidivism.


For example, the State of Washington conducted a study in 2004 that found that those with the highest rates of recidivism were those charged with drugs and property offenses, while those charged with assault, manslaughter, murder and sex offenses had the lower rate. The study also found that women had much lower recidivism rates than men.

A Bureau of Justice study of prisoners released in 1994 found that after three years released prisoners with the highest recidivism rates were those convicted for property offenses (motor vehicle theft being the highest at 76%) and drugs, while those with the lowest rates were convicted of homicide (which had the lowest rate at 41%), sexual assault and driving under the influence.


Several studies over the years have consistently found very low recidivism rates among sex offenders. This has been corroborated by a recent study in the journal Sexual Abuse: A Journal Of Research and Treatment.


Also, several studies have found that those "who have served longer prison terms tend to be older at release, and thus less likely to reoffend, regardless of their imprisonment experience."  A Connecticut study found that within two years of their release "70% of male offenders under the age of 23 were rearrested. Among males over the age of 43, 46% were rearrested."  A Texas study found that the recidivism rate among those over 30 was 32% compared to a rate of 46% for those under 21.  Another study concluded that "even most psychopaths 'burn-out' in mid-life."


Older prisoners tend to become a huge burden to the state as health care costs for this group becomes increasingly higher. One recent report noted that "on average an older prisoner costs two to three times the cost of a younger prisoner. The average cost of imprisoning an older prisoner today is roughly $70,000." The costs in California could reach as high as $100,000 per year for these prisoners. The report also noted the rapid rise among older prisoners.  For example, "in the federal system, a remarkable 43.7% of the prison population is now 41 years old or older. The older prisoner population is the fastest growing segment of the prison systems of many states."  The report also noted that "In the last 20 years, the population of older prisoners has grown by 750%." Further, this report continues, "the average prisoner is seven years older physiologically than he or she is chronologically. Thus, a 45-year old prisoner will often show the physical deterioration and require the level of care of a person in his early to mid-fifties."  This fact is also confirmed in another report.


I've been in regular communication with a California prisoner who is serving two life terms and is now approaching 50 years of age.  In his most recent letter he stated that prisoners sentenced to life typically committed their crimes "while in their younger more erratic irresponsible stages of life." In considering whether or not this kind of prisoner is a "high risk" case the critical variable is what was the age when the original offense was committed?   Further, he stated that "those who have matured, aged and who have done well while in prison are repeatedly the least likely to be considered for parole."  These long term inmates eagerly "await the opportunity when they can at long last be rewarded with and become contributing members of their families and their communities."


California should consider all the research that reinforces what this prisoner is saying and begin to consider as a top priority the release of these aging prisoners who have matured out of their criminal ways.

Keywords: adult corrections, crime trends, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Sentencing, Correctional Institutions

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