Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Report Finds Fiscal Crisis of Increasing Low-Risk, High-Cost Older Prisoners

A report released by the Osborne Association found American prisons facing a crisis of aging in which an increasing percentage of older prisoners who are at low risk for recidivism are driving up the cost of running prisons while parole officials continue to deny release due to the nature of their, often decades-old, offenses. The reduction in programs, services and medical treatment due to these higher-cost prisoners may result in federal court intervention as has already happened in California.

The report noted a four-decade-long imprisonment binge—the longest and most widespread in world history—has caused the U.S. to surpass all other nations in total number of prisoners and per capita rate of incarceration. The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the prisoners on the planet. An estimated 2.3 million U.S. adults, 1/32 of the U.S. adult population, are under correctional or community supervision.

’’From 1995 to 2010, the U.S. prison population aged 55 or older nearly quadrupled. By 2030, this population is projected to account for one-third of all incarcerated people in the U.S., amounting to a staggering 4,400% increase over a fifty-year span. Even as crime has drastically declined and the U.S. prison population has begun to shrink, the aging prison population continues to rise at a disproportionate rate: while the overall prison population grew 42% from 1995-2010, the aging population increased by 282% and shows no sign of slowing down. Today, there are an estimated 246,000 prisoners age 50 or older in the United States” and the nearly 9,000 50+ prisoners (those aged 50 or older) in New York, make up about 17% of that state's prison population.

The crisis extends to many states, not just a few states with poor policies. Twenty-eight states' prison systems hold over 1,000 older prisoners compared to only two such states in 1990. According to Fordham University Professor Tina Maschi, the prison systems have reached a point in which the specialized needs of the aging prison population are exceeding the capability of the prisons to provide effective and humane care. "This sustained mass incarceration of elders bears major economic, social, ethical, and health implications—and without decisive action, our criminal justice system is at serious risk of collapsing under its own weight.”

The U.S. spends over $16 billion annually to incarcerate 50+ prisoners.

It is estimated that the average annual cost of incarcerating a 50+ prisoner is $68,270, about double the cost of incarcerating a younger prisoner. In some cases, medical expenses can make the cost five times greater or more.

The chief factor driving up the cost of incarcerating 50+ prisoners is health-care-related expenses. It costs about $2,000 per day to guard prisoners in medical facilities outside of the prison. This is in addition to the cost of the medical services. The prison environment contributes to increased medical costs. The stress of incarceration causes a 50-year-old prisoner's body to have a "physiological age” that is 10 to 15 years older.

Age is the most accurate predictor of recidivism. "Aging adults in prison have the lowest recidivism rate and pose almost no threat to public safety." The national average recidivism rate is 43.3%, but it is only 7% for those aged 50-64 and 4% for those over 65. Nonetheless, parole boards continue to refuse to release aging prisoners based upon the nature of an offense often committed decades earlier—a factor the prisoner can do nothing to change. This reflects the reality that it is less risky politically to reduce prison populations by diverting people from being sent to prison than by releasing those already imprisoned.

Sources: "The High Cost of Low Risk: The Crisis of America's Aging Prison Population,” July 2014;

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login