By Amanda Essex
The problem is clear. The number of state prisoners over the age of 55 is skyrocketing. And the cost to incarcerate and care for this population is unsustainable.
In mid-May, legislators from across the country met in Colorado Springs, Colo., to learn about and explore solutions for addressing the exploding number of older inmates. During the last two decades, the number of inmates older than 55 grew by 500 percent, accounting for most of the prison population growth during that time. Incarceration has been shown to exacerbate the effects of aging because of histories of substance abuse, inadequate preventative care and stress linked to prison life. Health care costs in prison are high, making up approximately 20 percent of prison expenditures in 2015. In 2011, states spent $7.7 billion on prison health care; in 2015, they spent $8.1 billion.
This population of older inmates includes both people serving life or very long sentences as well as people admitted later in life for a variety of offenses. Nearly 70 percent of admissions in 2013 for people over 55 were for nonviolent offenses such as property and drug crimes.
Participating legislators had the opportunity to develop and discuss plans for policies they could to take back to their state to address the causes and consequences of more older prisoners. When looking at the appropriate policy responses, many agreed that inmates serving long sentences or time for dangerous crimes should be considered separately from those admitted for nonviolent offenses later in life. Policy solutions focused on ways to identify and differentiate offenders who can be safely released from those who should remain behind bars.
One policy approach discussed was medical and geriatric parole laws. Medical parole statutes allow for the release from prison of certain inmates due to poor health. Geriatric parole statutes allow for release of inmates because of advanced age. For more information on medical and geriatric parole laws, see NCSL’s State Medical and Geriatric Parole Laws webpage.
While nearly every state has a medical parole law and at least 17 states have a geriatric parole law, they are rarely used. Options that were discussed to increase the use of these policies included: working with stakeholders—including local prosecutors and corrections departments—to gain support for expansion of the use of these laws and creation of a release matrix to help guide release decisions.
For the most serious offenders, legislators considered options to expand and improve in-prison care. Strategies identified included gathering and analyzing data on the medical needs of older inmates and creating facilities that can more appropriately meet the needs of older inmates, such as minimum-security nursing homes.
The legislators’ discussion and policy development were informed by a tour of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, where they were able to learn about best practices and programs the corrections department is employing to address the needs of older inmates. You can see more from the visit on NCSL’s Facebook page.
Amanda Essex is a senior policy specialist in the Criminal Justice Program and organized the visit to the prison.