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ACLU Report on Elderly Prisoners Calls for Common-Sense Reform

Taxpayers haven't thus far been persuaded by their sense or compassion to think twice about imprisoning nonviolent, elderly offenders. So the American Civil Liberties Union, in a June 2012 report on the mass incarceration of the elderly, has elucidated the problem with cold, hard data.

Among the more than 2 million people behind bars in America, there are 246,600 prisoners age 50 and over—about 16% of the overall prison population—who are considered "aging'' or "elderly" by the National Institution of Corrections because of the stresses of incarceration and the lack of appropriate healthcare. and access to it, prior to and during incarceration.

"Our extreme sentencing policies and a growing number of life sentences." according to the ACLU, "have effectively turned many of our correctional facilities into veritable nursing homes—and taxpayers are paying for it."

While it costs taxpayers roughly $34.000 per year to incarcerate the average prisoner, it costs twice as much—$68,270 per year—to care for elderly prisoners, which is a major reason that state corrections spending grew by 674% in the last 25 years.

Among the states with the highest percentages of aging prisoners: West Virginia (20%), New Hampshire (20%), Massachusetts (19%), Florida (18%), and Texas (18%). California, Texas and Florida, in fact, account for 43% of the elderly prison population. Some are serving short sentences for nonviolent crimes like burglary or drug possession. Many are repeat offenders, prisoners who have served multiple sentences—caught in the "revolving door" of the criminal-justice system—convicted or lower-level felonies. But, increasingly, the elderly prison population is comprised of offenders given longer sentences for nonviolent crimes, remaining in prison into old age. From 1986 to 1995, which the ACLU calls "the apex of the tough-on ­crime period" of the U.S. criminal-justice system, the number of offenders sentenced to 20 years or more in prison more than tripled, while—from 1984 to 2002— life sentences (with or without parole) more than quadrupled,

Yet, the majority of aging prisoners, according to the ACLU, are not incarcerated for murder. About 65% of Texas' elderly prisoners, for instance, have been incarcerated for drug and property offenses and other nonviolent crimes, In North Carolina, 26% of prisoners age 50 and over have been incarcerated under habitual offender laws or for drug crimes, while another 14% are in prison for fraud, larceny, and traffic and public order violations.

"Many individuals who would have been sentenced to shorter periods of incarceration for repeat crimes before 1979," the ACLU says, "are now caught in the net of later-enacted habitual offender laws and given punishments of 20 years or more."

Research has shown that by age 50, people are far less likely to commit crimes. Arrest rates are just over 2% at age 50, and arrests are almost nil at age 65. And. ex-offenders over age 50 are far less likely to recidivate than younger ex-offenders, in New York, for example, only 7% of ex-offenders ages 50-64 return to prison for new convictions. In Virginia, only 1.3% of ex-offenders over 55 committed new crimes and returned.

The ACLU recommends that parole hoards should grant conditional releases to aging prisoners. using a "peer-reviewed, evidence-based risk assessment" to determine whether the prisoner poses a substantial risk to public safety. States should also "'utilize and expand- medical parole, which usually require prisoners to be terminally ill or physically incapacitated to he considered for release.

More systemic reform would include the repeal of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, habitual offender laws, and so-called truth-in-sentencing laws.

Source: American Civil Liberties Union, America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly June 2012:

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