This article in The Auburn Citizen provides a good look at New York State's experience with an aging prison population.
It's supported by both common sense and evidence: when prisoners get longer-than-necessary sentences (like mandatory minimums), they spend more time in prison, get older, and often get sick -- and even if they are no longer dangerous, they remain in prison, costing taxpayers a fortune:
An older inmate population is the natural result of the strict sentencing that prevailed across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers and advocates say....
One example in New York was the Rockefeller drug laws, which from 1973 until their repeal in 2009 mandated sentences of 15 years to life for possessing more than four ounces of “narcotic drugs” such as heroin and cocaine.
As a result of such “get tough” sentencing guidelines, the state prison population grew dramatically from about 10,000 in 1973 to over 70,000 in 1992.
Many of the inmates who received life sentences as young men in the 1970s are reaching their 60s this decade.
In New York, there are 847 inmates age 65 and older. They make up about 1.5 percent of the overall prison population, a proportion that has been rising steadily for several years, state Department of Corrections and Community Services spokesman Peter Cutler said. As recently as 1992, it had been just 0.3 percent.
Nationally, the 55-and-older segment of the prison population grew by 77 percent from 1999 to 2007, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.
The change is important because elderly inmates like Bernard Hatch are much more costly to house, mostly because of health care.
A 2010 report by the Vera Institute for Justice cited studies showing that elderly inmates make five times as many trips to health facilities and cost three times as much to incarcerate as their younger counterparts.
Elderly inmates average three chronic conditions and 20 percent suffer from mental illness, according to the report.
In New York, 71 percent of the 306 inmates housed in regional medical units at the end of 2010 were over age 50 and 34 percent were over age 65, Cutler said.
The demographic change and the attendant cost spike has sent some states scrambling for ways to handle older inmates.Releasing elderly offenders is one humane and fiscally smart solution -- but in New York as elsewhere, it sadly doesn't happen much:
New York is also among the 15 states with some sort of geriatric release process. Such programs are usually based on inmates’ terminal illnesses, and advocates point out that recidivism rates plummet as offenders age.
One study showed a one-year recidivism rate of 3.2 percent for released inmates age 55 and older compared to 45 percent for people between 18 and 29 years old.
The compassionate release program in New York, however, results in very few releases: just eight in 2010 out of 140 applicants, Cutler said.
“All the studies show that recidivism is virtually non-existent once a person gets over 45,” said Soffiyah Elijah, director of the Correctional Association, a non-profit prison advocacy group. “I think it would be smart for us to take another look at how we’re spending taxpayers’ dollars to keep those individuals incarcerated.”