Between 1993 and 2013, the number of people 55 or older in state prisons increased by 400 percent, reported The New York Times. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that by 2030, people over 55 will constitute a third of the country’s prison population.
Research shows that most people age out of criminal conduct. Moreover, the Department of Justice asserts that the risk of elderly people reoffending after release is minimal. Yet decades of tough-on-crime sentencing and increasingly rigid release policies have left many to grow old in a system that was not designed to accommodate them. The cost is high, for both the residents and the public at large.
Older residents who are released should be provided with support. And they should be given the opportunity to use their experiences to drive change in their communities. Advocacy groups have already demonstrated the power of restorative justice programs led by the formerly incarcerated, both inside and outside prisons, allowing for healing and growth for all parties affected by violence — victims, offenders and families.
Reforms have ignited hope among residents who expected to die in prison. In California, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 provides a process for nonviolent offenders to be considered for parole if their release poses no unreasonable risk to the community. Also in California, the Elderly Parole Program lays out a path for some residents who are over 50 and who have served at least 20 years. The state has also established compassionate release programs for terminally ill or medically incapacitated residents.
Efforts to reduce the aging prison population are driven not solely by compassion but also by the tremendous cost of incarcerating older people. Residents do not qualify for Medicaid, leaving the state responsible for all care expenses. Older residents are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, dementia and cancer and to struggle with depression and anxiety.
Yet the rules and policies around parole decisions are often obstacles to releasing elderly residents, especially if they committed violent offenses in their youth. These secretive and subjective policies should be changed to focus on risk assessment and rehabilitation rather than the initial crime.
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