Earlier this month Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would institute new sentencing guidelines for defendants in federal cases convicted of non-violent drug crimes.
The policy shift seeks to mitigate the damage of “draconian mandatory minimum sentences”—which have tied the hands of judges and helped contribute to America’s status as the most incarcerated nation on Earth. Less reported is a separate component of the new guidelines that will create a pathway for the release of elderly and infirm prisoners who have not yet completed their sentences but no longer pose a threat to society.
That’s good policy; unfortunately, it will have only a minimal impact on one of the biggest problems now facing the American correctional system.
According to a report from Human Rights Watch released last year, the number of senior citizens under American correctional supervision is higher than it’s ever been and growing at an exponential rate. The study found that the number of state and federal prisoners that are 55 or older—the official threshold for old age behind bars—grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population between 1995 and 2010. The number of prisoners over 65, meanwhile, surged 63 percent—or 94 times the rate of the general prison population—in the three years prior to 2010.
Pennsylvania has not only followed the trend, it has exceeded it. According to HRW, in the nation only Oregon has a higher proportion of geriatric inmates than Pennsylvania. At the end of 2010, there were 8,462 inmates in Pennsylvania’s prisons over the age of 50, representing 16.5 percent of the inmate population. A decade ago they made up less than 10 percent of all prisoners. Inmates over the age of 40, meanwhile, now represent more than one third of Pennsylvania’s total prison population.
A report from the Congressional Research Service found that in 2010, approximately 14 percent of the roughly 207,000 prisoners in federal lock up were over the age of 50. The vast majority of aging prisoners are incarcerated by states like Pennsylvania, where the new DOJ guidelines will have no effect.
So why should we care? Well, if the senselessness of keeping doddering old men and women who can hardly climb a set of steps—let alone commit a crime—in jail for things they did decades ago isn’t enough, how about this: It’s costing us a shit load of money.
Funding for the state’s prison system is now our third largest expense behind medical assistance and education, and much of it is due to the provision of health care—which studies show costs an average of four times more for inmates over 55 than for younger inmates. According to a 2012 report from the America Civil Liberties Union, states spend nearly $70,000 a year to house and care for an inmate over 50, twice the cost of an average prisoner. And once they get sick—which, given the conditions in jail is pretty much a foregone conclusion—the cost is even higher. According to Republican State Senator Stewart Greenleaf—a former Montgomery County prosecutor and vocal proponent of prison reform— the average cost of caring for a terminally ill patient can run as high as $100,000 a year.
And here’s the rub: Unlike infirm senior citizens on the outside, who qualify for federal medical assistance, inmate costs are picked up entirely by the state taxpayer. All it would take is to shift some of those inmates to a private nursing home or halfway house through an early-release program to save the Department of Corrections tens of thousands of dollars. But while Pennsylvania does have a compassionate release program for the sickest patients, eligibility is so strict that hardly anyone qualifies for it. That needs to change.
Last year Governor Corbett signed Senate Bill 100, which seeks to decrease the state’s prison population through alternative programs for low-risk offenders. That’s a step in the right direction, but the law contains no provision for transitioning elderly inmates who no longer pose a risk to society into private settings. And it doesn’t even touch one of the main reasons Pennsylvania has so many old inmates in the first place: our policy of life without parole.
The commonwealth is one of only six states that denies parole to lifers; and according to the Sentencing Project we have the highest percentage of inmates serving life without parole of any state besides Louisiana. Victims’ advocates and their supporters say that’s as it should be. But their motivations are purely emotional and reactionary, both of which are very poor drivers of good policy.
Numerous studies show that older prisoners rarely re-offend once released, particularly those that have been incarcerated for an extended period of time, which most elderly inmates have. Pennsylvania should follow the lead of the federal government and commit to a policy based on common sense rather than an Old Testament understanding of justice.