The release of elderly prisoners is significantly underused, a criminal justice professor says.
Every state except Iowa has a law allowing compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill prisoners, writes Michael Pittaro, a Ph.D. associate professor for American Military University and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at East Stroudsburg University.
In 2012, incarcerating people over the age of 50 in the U.S. cost $16 billion, despite making up only 10% of state prison populations. The cost of imprisoning an elderly person is significantly more, Pittaro reports — $65,000 to $75,000, and higher in some locations.
Yet according to a study by the United States Bureau of Justice from 2014, older incarcerated persons are substantially less likely to engage in post-release crime than their younger counterparts. Older incarcerated persons recidivate at a rate of only 4%.
Because of all this and more, Pittaro asks in an article penned for Psychology Today, “Why Aren’t Compassionate Release Laws Used More?”
Age is one of the most reliable metrics for predicting recidivism, Pittaro writes. “Since most elderly offenders pose very little threat to public safety, this could serve as a much-needed release valve for an already overcrowded, costly correctional system.”
His article discusses a conference Ageing and Imprisonment: Identifying the Needs of Older Prisoners hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2016.
The conference published a study that identified a phenomenon called “accelerated aging.” Incarcerated persons typically have the health problems of people ten to 15 years older. So incarcerated people over 50 are considered older or elderly.
Elderly prison populations often experience chronic physical and mental health conditions at a young age; emotional stress and trauma; a history of drug abuse; and a lack of access to adequate healthcare prior to incarceration. This is one of the reasons Pittaro says that he would support the release of “nonviolent older offenders, particularly those with diminished cognitive or physical abilities.”
Incarcerated persons who qualify for compassionate release usually have served a significant portion of their sentences. They also have a chronic or terminal illness. Theoretically, compassionate release sounds simple, but Pittaro says it’s “far more complicated” in practice.
A report by the Marshall Project said that only 324 of 5,400 requests from 2013 to 2017 gained approval from the federal Bureau of Prisons and 266 incarcerated people died waiting for a decision. In New Jersey, the courts — not the parole board — decide who receives compassionate release. In 2021, they granted only one such application.
Pittaro calls legislation that favors compassionate release “a step in the right direction,” but adds that “more needs to be done.” He writes, “Until more elderly prisoners are discharged, either through compassionate release or perhaps clemency initiatives, the government and correctional facilities will be forced to spend more and more resources on serving this aging population.”