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:
You can read and download the full report here.