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9.4: Aged and Elderly Populations

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    Over the past two decades, the number of state prisoners age 55 or older sentenced to more than 1 year increased from 26,300 to 131,500 prisoners. This represented an increased from 3% of the state prison population in 1993 to 10% in 2013. Between 1993 and 2013, the median age of prisoners increased from 30 to 36 years. The prison population’s changing age structure has implications for the management and care of inmates. Two main factors contributed to the aging of state prisoners between 1993 and 2013: a greater proportion of older prisoners were serving longer sentences, predominantly for violent offenses, and the number of admissions of older persons increased. Both the admission rate and yearend imprisonment rate for state prisoners age 55 or older increased from 1993 to 2013, which indicates that the aging U.S. resident population was not solely responsible for the growth in older offenders in prison.

    The imprisonment rate for prisoners age 55 or older sentenced to more than 1 year in state prison increased from 49 per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same age in 1993 to 154 per 100,000 in 2013. Forty percent of state prisoners who were age 55 or older on December 31, 2013, had been admitted to prison when they were at least age 55, and 60% turned age 55 while serving time in prison. Additionally, 40% of state prisoners age 55 or older on December 31, 2013, had been imprisoned for at least 10 years, compared to 9% in 1993.

    The growth in state prison admissions from 1993 to 2003 was driven by people ages 40 to 54 (up 162%) and those age 55 or older (up 124%). Admission to prison of people age 55 or older increased 82% between 2003 and 2013. During the same period, state prison admissions declined 12% for those age 39 or younger and 11% for those ages 40 to 54. People age 55 or older accounted for 1% of state prison admissions in 1993, 2% in 2003, and 4% in 2013. The mean age at admission also increased, from 30 years in 1993 to nearly 34 years in 2013.

    Prisoners age 55 or older had consistently higher mean sentence lengths, increasing from 76 months in 1993 to 82 months in 2013 across all offenses. In comparison, prisoners ages 18 to 39 were sentenced to a mean of 64 months in 1993 and 69 months in 2013. The mean sentence length for new inmates ages 40 to 54 increased from 65 months in 1993 to 71 months in 2013. Across all age groups and offense types, the mean time prisoners expected to serve on a new court commitment when entering state prison increased from 29 months in 1993 to 39 months in 2013. Prisoners age 55 or older convicted of new violent crimes received longer sentences and could be expected to serve a higher proportion of their sentences than younger offenders. Prisoners admitted in 2013 when they were age 55 or older could expect to serve an average of more than 182 months (15 years) for new violent offenses, compared to 116 months (10 years) for those admitted at ages 40 to 54 and 55 months (almost in 5 years) for those ages 18 to 39.

    Two elderly inmates with canes walk down a hall.

    Figure 9.6 Two elderly & disabled prisoners walking down 'A' wing of HMP & Young Offenders Institute ‘Littlehey’. Image is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

    Many older prisoners in the past two decades were serving long sentences for violent crimes. More than 65% of state prisoners age 55 or older were serving time for violent offenses between 1993 and 2013, compared to a maximum of 58% of other age groups. In 2013, 48% of state prisoners age 55 or older were serving sentences for murder or non-negligent manslaughter or sexual assault, compared to 31% of those ages 45 to 54 and 27% of those ages 35 to 44.

    Although the rapid rise in the aging prison population is often attributed to the overall rise in the U.S. aging population, researchers attribute several factors to the recent growth. The Bureau of Justice Statistics cites two primary reasons in the Aging of the State Prison Population 1993–2013 Report. First, data indicate there has been an increase in the number of older adults who commit crimes and enter the prison system at an older age. While there were 2 million fewer arrests in 2012 than in 1993, arrests of people age 55 and older increased by 77 percent in the same time period. Another factor contributing to the growth of the older prison population is longer prison terms. The number of prisoners aged 55 and older who were sentenced to more than one year in prison increased from 26,300 in 1993 to 131,500 in 2013—a 400 percent increase. Older people may have longer criminal histories and therefore be more likely to be affected by multiple strike laws. Additionally, individuals who entered the system in young or middle age are aging in place in the prison setting. For example, between 1993 and 2003, prisoners aged 45–49 were the fastest-growing age bracket in the prison population. Thus, by 2013, many had aged into the category of older prisoner.

    The aging of the prison population has implications for the quality and type of services they receive in the correctional system, as well as for reentry services since the vast majority of prisoners return to the community at some point. In terms of care for aging prisoners within the correctional systems, considerations include the need for a physical infrastructure within the prison facility that supports people as they age (accessible cells, grab bars, alternatives to bunk beds), programming geared for older inmates (employment, skills training, recreation), health needs (addressing physical and mental health conditions, medication management), prison workforce needs (additional staff may be needed to provide personal care assistance with bathing, dressing and moving around the institution). There is also support needed when older inmates are paroled or prepare to return to the community to ensure successful reentry into society and prevent recidivism. Access to services such as transportation and housing, assistance finding employment, connection with a social support system, access to physical and mental health care, and help with signing up for benefits are important factors in a successful reentry.

    With the Bureau of Prisons’ changes to the compassionate release program in 2013, prison systems have given greater attention to compassionate release programs. The concept behind compassionate release is that it provides a community-based option for prisoners who have an “extraordinary or compelling” reason for release, such as a terminal illness, progressive illness or debilitating injury from which they will not recover. Compassionate release may also be a factor in helping to address prison overcrowding, particularly since older prisoners are less likely to recommit crimes. However, compassionate release options are not always well-utilized due to eligibility limitations, the bureaucracy of navigating the compassionate release process, and lack of public support for these programs. When compassionate release is utilized, it can present different challenges. For example, finding an appropriate placement for individuals who are terminally ill and setting up appropriate benefits in advance to ensure that the released individual has resources to pay for care can be challenging. As a result, nursing homes have reported situations where older prisoners have been “dumped” in their facilities with little or no resources or services in place for the person to live successfully. Lack of social acceptance and fear of this population returning to the community or entering a community-based long-term care setting is an ongoing challenge.

    9.4: Aged and Elderly Populations is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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