Matthew T. Mangino
May 8, 2015
America’s prisons are facing a growing crisis. The number of elderly and infirm inmates are on the rise, as are related prison healthcare cost.
According to the Washington Post, prisoners age 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in federal correctional facilities. The number of AARP eligible inmates has swelled by 25 percent since 2009.
The Bureau of Prisons saw healthcare expenses increase by 55 percent from 2006 to 2013, when it spent more than $1 billion, according to the Justice Department’s inspector general. The inspector general is conducting a review of the impact of the aging inmate population on prison activities, housing and costs.
There are about 2.3 million adults in state and federal prisons. According to the National Institute of Corrections, about 246,000 are 50 or older. The U.S. currently spends more than $16 billion annually caring for these aging inmates, and their numbers are projected to grow dramatically in the next 15 years.
Donna Strugar-Fritsch, a consultant with Health Management Associates told Kaiser Health News, “In a couple of years this is the only thing people are going to be talking about. It’s getting worse by the minute.”
The Wall Street Journal recently asked, “Why is America’s prison population getting old?” The conventional wisdom says it’s because of harsher sentencing policies and antidrug laws adopted in the 1980s. New research, however, suggests another factor may be behind the graying of inmates — the growth of offenders entering or re-entering prison in middle age.
Shawn Bushway, a SUNY-Albany public policy professor who co-wrote a study on the aging of those incarcerated, told the WSJ, “People are getting arrested and sentenced to prison at a higher rate in their 30s, 40s and 50s than they used to.”
The reason can be traced in part to sentencing guidelines. The prisoners in state prison are thought to be the worst of the worst. That threshold is often determined by looking at the seriousness of the offense and the criminal history of the offender.
The system has long acknowledged that offenders often age out of crime — the most dangerous segment of the population are young people. However, young people haven’t been around long enough to rack-up a significant prior record so their sentences don’t often reflect their level of dangerousness.
After aging offenders have had enough time to crank up their prior record score, they are less likely to commit crime but when they do they get clobbered. A felony at age 45 with a significant prior record might land that offender in prison for 20 years, whereas that same offense by a 19-year-old might mean 18 months.
A study on aging prisoners, funded by Bureau of Justice Assistance, concluded that “rising admission age is the primary force driving the increase in the elderly group.”
“Our federal prisons are starting to resemble nursing homes surrounded with razor wire,” Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums told The Post.
In the last five years, a handful of states have tried to contract with private nursing homes to care for some of their elderly and disabled inmates under so-called “medical parole” programs that allow prisoners to receive care outside of a prison while remaining in state custody.
Two years ago, Connecticut asked the commercial nursing home industry to provide a facility that would accept a steady stream of prison inmates and patients from the state mental hospital who required long-term nursing care.
According to Kaiser Health News, a handful of states are interested in following Connecticut’s lead; Michigan is seeking industry proposals for a similar arrangement, and Kentucky and Wisconsin are considering doing the same.
What is your state doing?
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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