You Can't Get There from Here: Elderly Prisoners, Prison Downsizing, and the Insufficiency of Cost Cutting Advocacy
University of New Mexico - School of Law
April 21, 2013
UNM School of Law Research Paper No. 2013-07
The prison population in the United States has peaked and begun to recede, reversing more than 30 years of growth. Mass incarceration is yielding to the imperative to reduce state budgets in recessionary times. As states turn away from the extravagant use of prison for nonviolent offenders, the percentage of the prison population serving long and life sentences for violent felonies will increase. By 2009 one in eleven prisoners were lifers. These are the prisoners growing old and dying in prison. High cost elderly prisoners who have aged out of crime should be good candidates for cost saving measures such as compassionate release, parole, and release through community corrections programs. This impression does not withstand scrutiny. Two thirds of elderly prisoners have been convicted of violent crimes; one quarter has been convicted of sexual offenses. Programs to reduce prison costs have indeed gained ground but they are designed for a very different population. The offender who is well positioned to avoid or leave prison as a result of cost savings policies is a young nonviolent offender; The majority of states have succeeded in reducing prison admissions by diverting nonviolent offenders to drug and other treatment programs and reducing prison terms for low level offenders. A threshold condition for diversion or release is low risk of violent offending. Implicitly these low risk nonviolent offenders are also promoted as criminals who can rehabilitate and reintegrate into the community. The majority of compassionate release programs either exclude prisoners who were convicted of violent crimes or require that the prisoner be incapacitated to the extent that he or she poses no threat to public safety. Yet even prisoners who meet these standards are rarely released. Arguing for cost cutting release of the fast growing legion of elderly prisoners is much less easily buttressed with soothing claims about the happy coincidence of lower costs and public safety. Even if, and it is big if, exaggerated fear of further predations were successfully addressed, the advocate of cost cutting reform cannot answer demands for retribution without venturing beyond the discourse of the “tough on crime” era. For thirty years the political class has shunned the previously commonly invoked criminal justice values of second chances -- the redemptive values of rehabilitation, reintegration, and mercy. The sickest and oldest prisoners are largely beyond second chances for productive citizenship. Whether released or incarcerated their care will be borne by the public purse. Elder care is not free. This Article focuses on the subclass of old prisoners who are beyond any prospect for productive citizenship because of age and ill health and are in need of elder care. The argument of this Article is that in order to capture the savings that release (and efficient carceral care) of elderly prisoners would bring, politicians and policy advocates will have to relearn to speak the language of humane criminal justice values, prominently mercy.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 19
Keywords: incarcerated senior citzens, elderly prisoners, cost of medical care in prisons, incarceration rate of elderly prisoners, non-violent prisoners, compassionate release
Date posted: April 23, 2013 ; Last revised: December 11, 2013