Aging Prisoners Shackle State Budgets

The nation’s graying prison population will strain the corrections system. There are ways to keep costs down, but they’re not often used.
by | November 2014

Nearly 10 percent of inmates housed in California state prisons were age 50 or older in 2003. About a decade later, that percentage has doubled. Thanks to an aging prison population and a 2011 prison realignment bill that sent lower-level and typically younger offenders to county jails, about 21 percent of the total state prison population today is over age 50.

While the circumstances in California are unique, the predicament is not. As baby boomers age nationally, America’s prison population is graying. What’s less understood, though, is the full extent of the demands an older prison population will place on corrections systems and just how much it will end up costing.

A recent Urban Institute analysis suggests that it could carry significant fiscal consequences for states in the years to come. Compared to the general population, older prisoners experience accelerated aging due to substance abuse or other unhealthy lifestyle choices. Older prisoners also require, according to the report, more time from guards for their daily routines and chores. “Despite being a small percentage of the total inmate population, the implications are quite large,” says Bryce Peterson, an Urban Institute research associate. He adds that “policies and different intervention strategies should focus on a larger group of older inmates and not just those close to death or severely ill.”

SOURCE: Urban Institute Analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics Data

One program in a few California state prisons that could be expanded to help older prisoners, for example, allows inmates to volunteer their time to aid fellow prisoners who are developmentally disabled or mentally ill. The volunteers, known as “gold coats” for the gold smocks they wear, assist inmates with daily tasks, such as dressing or filling out paperwork. As part of the program, they receive training and regularly meet with prison health staff.

Programs like this are needed as California’s older prison population is set to grow exponentially, particularly given many inmates’ lengthy sentences. About 5,400 are either on death row or facing life in prison without parole, and another 26,000 are sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. That’s about a quarter of the state’s current prison population. “When you incarcerate people when they’re older, you’re doing so at a significant cost when in some cases a person’s ability to harm the general public is greatly diminished,” says Joyce Hayhoe, director of legislation and communications for the California Correctional Health Care Receivership.

Nationwide, state prison populations peaked in 2009 and have since declined slightly. According to the latest federal statistics, prisoners under federal jurisdiction also fell nearly 1 percent in 2013 -- the first annual decline since 1980. The reversal is largely attributable to sentencing and other reforms, but the policy shift occurred fairly recently. The growing population of older prisoners who remain incarcerated can be traced back to stricter sentencing laws and parole and probation reforms that began in the late 1970s.

Efforts specifically aimed at reducing aging prison populations remain fairly limited. One common approach they've taken, Peterson says, is to study compassionate release programs. In 2011, California implemented a parole program for individuals permanently medically incapacitated to the point where they required 24-hour care. Until that program, there had been a few extreme cases of aging California prisoners in comas being guarded and kept alive through breathing and feeding tubes at acute care facilities at a cost of nearly $1 million a year.

At least 15 states provide some form of early release for geriatric inmates. But a Vera Institute of Justice report found those provisions were rarely used, in part attributable to restrictive eligibility criteria, political considerations, and long referral and review processes.

It’s hard to say just how much older prisoners will end up costing states. At least 16 states mandate the use of specialized corrections impact statements to help lawmakers understand how various criminal justice proposals affect prison populations and associated costs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Urban Institute report calls for better data for both estimating prisoner operating costs and identifying the point at which added prison time no longer reduces the probability of recidivism. Another recommendation from the report suggests developing a screening tool to assist corrections officers in identifying symptoms of impairment among older prisoners.