The Elderly in Prison – Updated
Australia is now considering their first dedicated prison for the elderly. The prison-nursing home would be built in western Victoria. The state and federal prison systems in the United States should adopt and implement this progressive approach regarding the increasing aged population incarcerated in our prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report in June about elderly inmates. Incredibly, the elderly inmate population has increased 1300 percent since the early 1980s. The federal government and the states spend more than $16 billion a year to jail aging inmates. The report also included the fact that almost all inmates over 50 are not a threat to society. It costs $68,000 to imprison an elderly inmate which is twice the cost to incarcerate the average inmate. The difference in costs results from health care expenses which rises every year.
From 1995 to 2010, the number of inmates 55 and older in federal and state prisons increased by 282 percent as reported by Human Rights Watch. The increase of seniors in prison have strained an already overcrowded prison system. On December 9, 2012, PrisonPath posted an article on the “Elderly in Prison.” The article noted, ” It costs $68,000 to imprison an elderly inmate, which is twice the cost to incarcerate the average inmate. The difference in costs results from health care expenses which rises every year.”
More and more judges are now considering the age and health of a senior in determining a fair sentence. A sentence of ten years of prison time for a 70-year-old defendant (non-violent offender) in poor health constitutes a death sentence. On the other hand, should elderly defendants receive favoritism over young defendants? Prosecutors argue that age should not be a factor in determining a sentence. If you commit the crime, you do the time. The argument is made by the government that health care rendered in prisons is satisfactory, but this argument is not correct as shown in the 2004 and 2002 surveys of inmates.
“The analysis by Wilper and colleagues examined data from the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities and the 2002 Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, which showed that large proportions of inmates with serious chronic physical illness didn’t receive adequate care during their incarceration. For example, 13.9% of federal inmates, 20.1% of state inmates, and 68.4% of local-jail inmates with a persistent medical problem hadn’t received a medical examination since beginning their prison term. Continuation of prescription medication was also problematic. Before entering prison, approximately one in seven inmates was taking a prescription medication for an active medical problem. However, upon incarceration, 20.9% of federal, 24.3% of state, and 36.5% of local-jail inmates stopped their medication.”
The following article reflects the controversy over sentencing non-violent seniors to long prison terms.
Should defendants’ age or health issues be sentencing factors?
Is prison more of a punishment if a defendant is 50 rather than 20?
Some defense attorneys are debating that issue in federal court as they seek to minimize prison sentences for defendants 50 or older.
“We’re seeing it a lot,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove said.
The issue is at the heart of an unprecedented second appeal that Solove has filed over the prison sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge James L. Graham on a Knox County man, Richard Bistline.
Graham originally sentenced Bistline, 70, of Mount Vernon, in 2010. The sentence, for possessing child pornography, was one day in prison plus 10 years of supervised probation. Solove appealed, saying the sentence was too lenient.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Graham to resentence Bistline, saying the original penalty “does not reflect the seriousness of his offense.”
In January, Graham ordered the same sentence but added three years of home confinement as part of Bistline’s probation. The judge said he didn’t order more prison time because he was concerned about Bistline’s age and health problems, which included two strokes and a heart attack a year ago. He questioned whether Bistline would get adequate medical care in prison.
Solove, who prosecuted the case, had asked for a five-year prison term, which was a bit less than is called for in the sentencing guidelines determined by the court. Graham maintained that would be “a life sentence, or more accurately, a death sentence,” for Bistline.
Graham said last week that judges can consider age and infirmity in sentencing, and he does that if a defendant is not a danger to the public. “I was completely satisfied in this case that he was not.
“Your job as a judge is to figure out which one of these defendants are the really bad guys you need to put away.”
In another case, Laura E. Byrum, an assistant federal public defender, is arguing that her 64-year-old client should get a prison sentence that’s shorter than the guidelines call for, in part because of his age and health problems.
Robert W. Burke of 767 Bracken Court, Worthington, pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography, and the guidelines call for a 20-year prison term.
Byrum has asked for a 10-year prison term followed by 20 years of supervised release. She argues that the life expectancy of a man Burke’s age is 18 years, and his is likely shorter because he has skin cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Twenty years is a “virtual death sentence,” she wrote in her sentencing memorandum.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Hill said the federal prison system can handle most of the typical health problems associated with aging.
“Going to prison isn’t easy for anyone, but that is the consequence of breaking the law,” she said. “We’re not sure that being nearer to the grave gives you license to be a criminal.” According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, state and federal prisons held 124,440 prisoners who were 55 or older in 2010. That was a 282 percent increase from 1995, at a time when the total number of prisoners rose by 42 percent.
By Christopher–Yes, it works for politicians and others who have the money or power to avoid jail time so it should also work for us poor people whom persecutors enjoy imprisoning.
By Elaine–We had a recent case in Ireland where the issues of age and the chronic medical needs of a prisoner led to a suspended sentence following this individual’s conviction for a serious crime. Following a lot of debate in the media and among the public, there was a reversal of the decision to suspend the initial portion of the sentence. While this was an extreme case, I think it illustrates some of the issues raised in this article.
By Zachary–In addition to considering an elderly defendant’s health, courts should consider the likelihood that the defendant will commit another crime. Studies have shown and several courts have recognized that recidivism rates decline as people age.
Janet • I think it most definitely should be a factor. Economically, it makes sense. In an already financially suffering economy, should we be spending that extra money to pay for the medical care of seniors in prison?. Additionally, as the article pointed out, incarcerating an older person is often comparable to giving them a life sentence.
Brian• prisons already cannot provide the health care that certain people need. Overcrowding only worsen the problem.
By Terri–At a meeting with the head of a parole team, I asked why age at time of crime is listed as one of the 15 factors to consider in parole. Did youth mean they are rehabilitable? Did elderly mean it costs more to keep them in prison? The official refused to answer, saying only that they looked at all 15 factors. It seemed that having the list was a wall he could hide behind, and age wasn’t really considered either way.
By Bernadette–This is a major issue..and luckily we are trying to start a charity with this in mind,(set up by an ex-offender)
I was shocked when I found out how many inmates over 60-65 never mind 55!
Jake • Yes, but…the example used of someone sentenced for possession of child pornography, is not a good one, I would say age and health should be considered for non-violent offenders and *not* considered for violent offenders and sex offender (“violent” or not). Age and bad health does not make sex offenders any less dangerous, and a “first offender” sentencing for sex offenders is almost certainly *not* truly a first offense. It is the first time he was caught.
In fact, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines used to frown upon age and health as sentencing factors. Only after Booker/Rita/Gall/Spears did the Sentencing Commission finally acknowledge that U.S. courts must consider these and a ton of other “discouraged” sentencing factors.
The US Sentencing Commission has a great bunch of research, including about recidivism risk factors (diminishing after 40 – including for sex offenders, who have the lowest re-offense rates of any convict).
By Clifton–This is the way life is. Some situations happens at different age and we follow God law and laws of our society.
Albert • The whole person should be taken into account, the age of the offender, both the physical and mental health, education or the lack of it, the family life as well the nature of the offense, offender classification.
Age is critical because of the level of immaturity or maturity as well impulsiveness- See Roper, Graham and Miller.
By Joyce–I would say these factors should only apply depending upon the crime he/she is convicted of.
By Rose–Yes some are to old are sick to do any harm. No good health care they are dying anyway.
By Stephen–As horrible as it sounds, I believe some of those seniors have chosen to be there. Let’s say they are alone, have no family support system and they are recieving what is it now 674.00 a month. No one can pay rent buy food and clothes on that money, many have done well in their working lives and are able to afford retirement on Social Security, but many haven’t. In prison they will get fed 3 times a day, they will see a doctor when needed, they will receive ALL the medication that doctor prescribes and have a bed… Read more »
By Maria–Age should not be the only factor in considering a sentence. In Ireland there is the JLO program which runs very well. Under this program a person under 18 can be let go sentence free with the consent of the juvenile liaison officer.
Prison disrupts people’s lives at any age. It can interfere with a young person’s pursuit of a career, time spent with their kids, or the opportunity to even have kids. From that standpoint, it might actually be less disruptive for the quality of life of an older person who has already done these things. On the other hand, there is the matter of health care, which is often inadequate in prison. That doesn’t have to be a problem if the authorities would improve the quality of health care provided to inmates. But until then, I’m not going to blame a… Read more »
By Tim–Yes, age should matter, be they young or old. I agree that the person’s entire life should be looked at when considering a sentence. Sadly, I believe that people are incarcerated in large part because that is what helps get the politicians elected..no one wants to appear as being “soft” on crime and criminals. I believe that the sentencing should really look at a critical factor: how is the sentence for this person going to TRULY serve society and justice? Based on my experience, the federal system will not change based on “justice”. It will only change because of… Read more »
By Zachary–Here are some authorities and studies that might be helpful for defense counsel. Age greatly decreases the risk that he will commit another crime, and makes it unnecessary to impose a lengthy sentence in order “to afford adequate deterrence” and “to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(B) & (C); see also United States v. Jarvi, 537 F.3d 1256, 1263 (10th Cir. 2008) (recognizing that “district courts have broad discretion to consider individual characteristics like age . . . in fashioning an appropriate sentence” under § 3553(a), “even when disfavored under the guidelines… Read more »
By Randolph–I can here what you are saying, but the law is there for a reason. One must take responsibility for being caught if the deed is done by that person.
When it comes to something that will impact the rest of a person’s life, every factor should be considered including age. Looking at it money wise we must determine if the risk of giving that person doing the crime again at their age given a shorter sentence vs. how much it would cost. Given that, on the other end of the spectrum we should also factor in youth (mental maturity) and social circumstance.
The studies have shown that the recidivism rate for inmates over 50 is minor.
Judges who judge fairly should be commended. Each case should be viewed individually. Otherwise, why would we need judges on the bench? I appreciate the thinking and response by Judge Graham. Thank you, Your Honor!
Bernadette– We now have Restore Support Network looking after over 50’s in the UK..The main feature of this charity is restorative justice and reconciliation that involves a two-pronged approach..linking ex-offenders with their local communities by providing one to one support, and recruiting members from the general public with no criminal record to assist the delivery of the peer-led programme.The aim of this approach is:(1)-to meet the care and resettlement needs to older persons due for release from prison that will in turn reduce the risk of their re-offending (2).To demonstrate that reformed offenders can be trusted to take responsibility for… Read more »
By Helen–Prisons were not built for the elderly. My priority and concern are for those elderly already in prison who are frail and vulnerable. Many suffer medical neglect. It would be nice to have a special facility for them. helen
By Richard–Many factors go into making such decisions, first and foremost the disposition of the crime, No one wants early release of serial rapist, child murderers,and now domestic Terrorist, menaces to society,are dangerous individuals, as such should serve their full sentence like all criminals, that’s the responsibility of our justice system When free did these individuals take their medications in freedom? or did they neglect themselves to a point of despair which caused them to harm others If a person can not take care of their needs they exhibit antisocial behavior, The criminally insane receive special incarceration in some cases,… Read more »
By Gloria–Why should we spend more tax dollars on special facilities? Most of the elderly pose no threat to society and if not, release them. Lets get smart on crime!
By Helen–I do agree to release if the elderly are capable of caring for themselves, or have family
That would assume responsibility. Some have no relatives left.
By Willie–Yes I think it should be.
by minister willie–Yes, I do sympathize with elderly people having to serve so much time but the truth of the matter is that if we as a society started releasing prisoners when they reach a certain age limit can you imagine all the criminals who would come out of the wood work and start committing crimes at a later age simply because the knew the law would release them sooner than later. It’s a shame that some lesser criminals have to be caught up in the same net that dragged in some of the worst criminal. It’s similar to a… Read more »
how does this assist elderly “state inmates” who need to be placed in safer and non violent institutions; or even to transferred to another state for the same purpose?
There are two points from this article. The elderly inmates would be better protected in prisons or facilities incarcerating only the elderly. Although numerous facilities have 40 plus tiers, this does not stop completely the danger from violent young inmates who prey on the much older inmates. Second, over crowded prisons can be alleviated by releasing elderly nonviolent inmates. The studies have shown there is little risk releasing a 75 year old inmate who committed a nonviolent crime.
[…] we have discussed the inadequate healthcare for elderly inmates and the substantial increase of seniors in prison. The following New York Times Editorial focused on the Federal Bureau of Prison’s so called […]