New report finds that states miss opportunities to release aging prisoners

NEW YORK – A new report from Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections finds that most states with provisions for releasing older prisoners rarely use them, despite the relatively low risk eligible inmates would pose to public safety and the opportunity for potential cost savings.

It’s About Time: Aging Prisoners, Increasing Costs, and Geriatric Release examines statutes related to geriatric release in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The report concludes that few if any of these jurisdictions are implementing the provisions to the extent that policymakers may have anticipated. (The report features a chart that lists these jurisdictions and describes their policies and eligibility criteria.) Researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice found four factors that help explain the discrepancy: political considerations and public opinion; narrow eligibility criteria; procedures that discourage inmates from applying for release; and complicated and lengthy referral and review processes.

As harsher policies have led to longer prison sentences, often with a limited possibility of parole, correctional facilities throughout the United States are home to a growing number of older adults. Because this population has extensive, costly medical needs, states are confronting the complex and expensive repercussions of their sentencing practices. Prisons nationwide spend about two to three times more to incarcerate older individuals than younger inmates, according to a 2004 report from the National Institute of Corrections. To reduce medical and other costs associated with aging—or to avert future costs—some policymakers have become increasingly willing to release elderly inmates who are seen as posing a relatively low risk to public safety. However, as the new Vera report describes, the data show that states are rarely acting on the provisions they have.

“The upshot is that there’s a difference between what states would like to do—save money by releasing older prisoners—and what actually happens,” says the report’s author, Tina Chiu, Vera’s director of technical assistance. “If states want the result of geriatric release policies to be consistent with that objective, they should review the release process to address potential and existing obstacles.” 

The number of elderly adults in prison is substantial and growing. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1999 and 2007 the number of people 55 or older in state and federal prisons grew 76.9 percent, from 43,300 to 76,600, and the number of those ages 45 to 54 grew 67.5 percent.

Vera suggests that more effective monitoring, reporting, and evaluation mechanisms will result in more accurate assessments of the impact geriatric release policies are having. The report recommends that states pilot and evaluate creative strategies allowing older individuals to complete their sentences in the community. Finally, to protect public safety, the report suggests that states consider developing relevant risk- and needs-assessment instruments—as well as reentry programs and supervision plans—for elderly people who are released from prison.