In The High Costs of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population, the Osborne Association recommends immediate steps to stem the rapid growth of Americans aging – and dying –  behind bars and reduce the roadblocks older people face returning to society.

Even as crime is at national lows and 36 states have reduced imprisonment rates, the number of older adults in prison, many of whom require specialized medical care for age-related illnesses, has only continued to grow. By 2030, people over 50 will make up one-third of the US prison population, putting an unsustainable pressure on the justice system as a whole.

This crisis is exacerbated by the fact that prisons were never designed to be geriatric wards for individuals with a whole host of age-related issues. Incarcerated individuals experience a mental and physical decline at a much faster rate than people outside of prison: for example, research shows 40% of incarcerated older people are diagnosed with cognitive impairment. For some, dementia becomes so pronounced that they cannot even remember why they are incarcerated in the first place.

The unique challenges of incarcerating older people come at a high cost in both taxpayer dollars and human suffering. New York taxpayers spend between $100,000 and $240,000 annually to keep an aging person behind bars even though, after decades of incarceration, older people pose little to no risk to public safety. Only 1% of people 65 and older released from prison in New York are convicted of new crimes within three years, giving them the lowest recidivism rate of any age cohort.

This report expands on earlier research by detailing the most significant contributing factors to the dramatic growth in the numbers of people aging in prison – lengthy sentences, narrow release mechanisms, and society’s approach and response to violence – and examines the challenges faced by older people while incarcerated and as they return to the community after decades in prison.

Drawing on the voices of older people who have come home and lessons learned from successful programs to address the needs of older people both in prison and returning to the community, The High Costs of Low Risk lays out a new path forward, with a particular focus on New York.

Recommendations to reduce the undue suffering and taxpayer cost of aging in prison and increase support for older people returning home include: 

  • Expand mechanisms to release older people in greater numbers. Despite the extremely low rate of recidivism for people over 50, release rates for older incarcerated individuals remain low, with existing release mechanisms gravely underutilized. By expanding the use of parole in states that already permit the practice and increasing the use of compassionate release and medical parole in both state and federal systems, the costs of incarcerating an aging prison population can be reduced without threatening public safety.
  • Improve conditions inside prisons and jails for those aging within them. New policies should include training correctional staff to recognize and address age-related issues like hearing loss and cognitive decline and retrofitting prisons to make them more age-friendly.
  • Better prepare older people for re-entry from inside prison and increase supports when they come home: Many older returning citizens are unprepared for a world that is far different from the one they left decades before — from navigating today’s technology to finding age-appropriate housing and accessing health care for chronic conditions. Formerly incarcerated seniors should have support to address the extra obstacles they face re-entering society, including tailored discharge plans, incentivizing kin to take them in, access to public benefits and entitlements or employment, and connecting them to geriatric care.
  • Shift the nation’s response to violence within the criminal justice system. The endless punishment model that has led to the current crisis has created a fiscal and ethical dilemma. While accounting for harm done is essential, new research cited in the report reveals that long-term incarceration is not what most survivors of crime actually want, and it wreaks havoc on the families and children of those who age in prison. Authorities should expand the range of services offered to survivors of crime, and reduce our reliance on excessively long sentences as the default response to violent crimes.


You can read and download the full report here.