States including Louisiana could save on average more than $66,000 year for each elderly prisoner they needlessly keep behind bars, a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union finds.
Despite evidence that elderly people are far less likely to commit crime than the rest of the population, more than $16 billion of taxpayer money in the US is spent annually locking up hundreds of thousands of relatively low-risk prisoners who are 50 years of age and older, according to the ACLU's report. Age 50 is the criminological consensus of when a prisoner becomes elderly because people age physiologically faster in prison.
"Disproportionate sentencing policies, fueled by the 'tough on crime' and 'war on drugs' movements, have turned our prisons into nursing homes, and taxpayers are footing the bill," said Inimai Chettiar, ACLU advocacy and policy counsel. "Lawmakers should implement reforms that lead to the release of those elderly prisoners who no longer pose a safety threat, and should reform our sentencing policies to prevent this problem at the outset."
The ACLU's report, "At America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly," finds that by 2030, there will be more than 400,000 elderly prisoners behind bars, a 4,400 percent increase from 1981 when only 8,853 state and federal prisoners were elderly. This is despite universal agreement among criminologists that the propensity to commit crime plummets with age. In 2009, just over two percent of individuals between the ages of 50 and 54 were arrested, and virtually no people 65 or older were arrested. As a national average, just five to 10 percent of aging prisoners return to prison for any new crime, according to the report.
The United States currently imprisons 246,600 Americans 50 and older, a generally low-risk population that costs much more to keep locked up than younger prisoners, according to the report. In Louisiana about 6600 elderly are in prison. It costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but $68,270 per year to house a prisoner 50 and older.
"Simply put, spending enormous amounts of money locking up elderly prisoners who no longer need to be behind bars is an unwise use of taxpayer dollars," said Marjorie R. Esman, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director.
Louisiana, which incarcerates more people per capita than any other state, has made strides in correcting this problem: last year the state legislature passed a law granting certain elderly prisoners access to a parole hearing, during which parole boards can use risk assessment tools to accurately evaluate whether a prisoner can be safely released. This year several parole eligibility bills cleared the legislature, including one that will allow nonviolent and non-sex offenders access to a parole hearing if they achieve certain benchmarks in prison. These new laws will ease taxpayer burden by allowing prisoners to return to their families and to become taxpayers, while at the same time maintaining public safety.
"We can enhance public safety without turning our prisons into nursing homes," said Esman. "We should find ways to help people return to society, and keep our prisons for those who pose risks to their communities. Louisiana is working towards that goal. We hope to move forward with reform in the coming years."
A copy of the ACLU's report is available online at: www.aclu.org/elderlyprisoners