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The number of aging state and federal inmates is rising. Between 1981 and 2010, the number of inmates age 55 and older increased from 8,853 to 124,900. This number is projected to grow by

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400,000 within the next twenty years. The number of state and federal inmates ages 65 and older has grown 94 times faster than the overall prison population, in just the past three years.

Truth-in-sentencing guidelines and the Three Strikes Law are considered two of the primary factors contributing to the significant increase in California’s prison population. Researchers present statistics showing that the number of inmates serving life sentences has quadrupled, and the number of those sentenced to life without parole has more than tripled. Many of these incarcerated people will grow old and potentially die in prison.

These aging incarcerated individuals enter prison at age 41 or older, mostly for violent crimes. This means harsher sentencing guidelines do not primarily increase the number of aging inmates, but rather these individuals are older when admitted for their crimes. More than half of the inmates admitted in 2009 were age 51 or older when they were first admitted to prison, and three-fourths were ages 41 or older. In other words, as CJCJ’s Senior Research Fellow Mike Males puts it, crime is no longer just a young person’s game.”

Despite the myriad of potential causes, the fiscal and human impacts are ultimately destructive, making action necessary. Not only are these inmates’ health deteriorating, they are also adding billions of dollars to the state and federal criminal justice budgets. According to a 2012 ACLU report, it costs $34,135 per year to house an average inmate, but it costs $68,270 per year to house an inmate age 50 and older. The care for the aging population in prison is twice as expensive since more health problems result in increased medical treatment. This elderly population will require longer and more frequent hospitalization, as well as extended care outside the prison.

This population is unlikely to engage in future criminal conduct upon release from prison. In fact, by the time a person turns 50, their chance of recidivism drops significantly: only 16.9% of incarcerated individuals re-offend. According to the same ACLU report mentioned above, criminologists and corrections experts universally agree that a person’s average likelihood of committing any type of crime declines sharply with advancing age.” Imprisoning such individuals only redirects money towards incarceration and the deterioration of healthcare found within prisons, rather than providing alternatives to incarceration.

Law enforcement and community service providers must work to reduce California’s aging prison population, which will reduce this fiscal burden and redistribute resources for rehabilitation programs. Medical parole is one potential measure for addressing this issue. Medical parole grants certain inmates early released on special conditions, such as a terminal illness. In 2000, out of 170 New York state prison deaths, mostly health-related, 81 incarcerated individuals had applied for medical parole and only 12 were granted. This option is heavily underused, and should be implemented to prevent health-related prison deaths. 

Expanding aging inmate release programs is yet another way to reduce the human and fiscal impacts of the increasing elderly prison population. This method involves granting early release for those aging incarcerated individuals who pose little safety risk to society. Keeping these individuals in prison as their health is deteriorating while charging the state billions in medical costs does not address the goals of long-term public safety. What will increase public health and safety is releasing and treating these elderly individuals who are not a threat to society and alternatively utilizing this savings on crime prevention, rehabilitation, and reentry services.