ACLU: U.S. is paying dearly for elderly inmates

Harsh sentencing laws of the 1980s and ’90s have resulted in a U.S. prison population that is increasingly aged. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), care of elderly prisoners is placing a heavy burden on state and federal institutions. Elderly prisoners cost nearly twice as much to provide for as regular prisoners, and yet older prisoners who are released are significantly less likely to recommit crimes.

On Wednesday, the ACLU released “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,” a report examining the mushrooming number of prisoners in the U.S. over 50 and the resultant stresses exerted on the corrections system and on our society as a whole. The civil rights group said that states on average could save $66,000 per year for each elderly prisoner they release from the system.

According to the report, there are about 246,000 elderly prisoners in the U.S. (and, because incarcerated people age more quickly than people on the outside, over 50 is considered elderly in this study), a number that is only growing. By 2030, these older inmates will constitute more than a third of the incarcerated population.

ACLU economist William Bunting estimates that on average, each prisoner costs the state approximately $34,135 of taxpayer money per year to house. An elderly prisoner costs $66,270, nearly twice as much. Bunting estimates that by releasing non-violent elderly prisoners, the corrections system could save up to $16 billion annually.

Evidence shows that elderly people are significantly less likely to break the law. “In 2009, just over two percent of individuals between the ages of 50 and 54 were arrested, and virtually no one 65 or older was arrested. As a national average, just five to 10 percent of aging prisoners return to prison for any new crime,” said the press release accompanying the report.

The “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” years have left a legacy of stiffer, longer sentences for inmates with less flexibility for parole boards. According to Louisiana State Prison warden Burl Cain, “We bury more people than we release through the front gates.”

ACLU representative Marjorie Esman said, “Somebody who’s not going to do harm to another person shouldn’t have to die behind bars.”

Cain, Esman, the ACLU and the State of Louisiana have instituted one of the first parole boards dedicated to elderly prisoners. Louisiana currently boasts the highest number of incarcerated citizens of any state in the union. In 2011, a state parole board began to hear cases of elderly inmates petitioning for release.

Esman stressed that fewer prisoners means less of a burden on states, “What we really want to do is, of course, punish people for the harm they’ve done to society, but also to turn them into people who can be released and be productive taxpayers, rather than costing money.”

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About the Author
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.