How old is too old for prison?
That's the question two federal agencies are grappling over, and the answer they pick will determine how the government spends more than $800 million in public funding for prisons. And for tens of thousands of federal inmates, it could mean the difference between becoming eligible for a late-life release program and spending their twilight years behind bars.
To be eligible for the reduced sentencing program, inmates must have "chronic or serious medical conditions relating to the aging process" that "substantially diminish their ability to function in a correctional facility" for which "conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement," according to a statement from the Bureau of Prisons. They must also have served more than half of their sentence. For inmates looking for early release under nonmedical circumstances, the time-served bar is higher: "the greater of 10 years or 75 percent of their term."
"As with all compassionate-release determinations, the BOP considers whether the offender poses a danger to the safety of another person or to the community," the statement said.
But for any of the above criteria to be considered, the inmate must be aged 65 or older.
The Inspector General report did not explicitly call on the Bureau of Prisons to lower the limit in its May report. Instead, it recommended the bureau reconsider the age bar and noted the potential advantages of setting it at age 50.
The lower threshold would cut incarceration costs and relieve prison overcrowding without significantly increasing recidivism rates, the report said. The report notes several ways in which prisoners 50 and over differ from the rest of the prison population. Older inmates cost an average of 8 percent more to confine, but they are also less likely to end up back in prison after release. While the recidivism rate among all prisoners is 41 percent, for those released after age 50, the rate falls to 15 percent.
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