Elderly Prisoners

– References by Title

The problem of the elderly prison population, costs and recommendations including abstracts and links.

#WeAreOsborne Rachael Bedard’s Story.

Osborne Center for Justice Policy. 2016. December 2016.

Rachael Bedard, MD, is a specialist in geriatrics and palliative care in the jail system on Riker’s Island.  She talks about her work with people who are aging in the criminal system.

Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections

Aday, Ronald H. (2003). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

As the baby boom population continues to grow older, there are more and more elderly offenders entering the criminal justice system or growing old behind bars. In this comprehensive review and analysis, Aday addresses the challenges and issues that local, state, and federal corrections systems must face in handling this special group. Integrating practical approaches and theoretical concepts, the author covers the medical, gerontological, psychological and social aspects of aging in place in prison. This important book reviews the current state of our prisons, crime patterns among the elderly, problems associated with long-term inmates, the treatment of older women prisoners, and the possibility of an elderly justice system.

Beginning with a careful consideration of the nature and causes of crime committed by the elderly, Aday addresses recent trends in correctional systems that must address problems of overcrowding, violence, health care, and rising costs. Focusing on the health needs of a greying prison population, the author also discusses correctional programs that have been implemented to deal with the problems associated with older offenders and prisoners. The book also details older inmate experiences alongside a synthesis of the historical literature to provide a balanced overview of the problems from a variety of perspectives. Implications and recommendations for social and criminal justice policy are offered, making this a valuable resource for criminal justice professionals, health providers, policy makers, social workers, and students.

A More Cost-Effective Way of Dealing with the Elderly Prison Boom

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Blogs regarding Elderly Prisoners

In short, when it comes to the elderly prisoner population, the objective should be to get the aging prisoner out of the prison system altogether, and not simply to re-imprison him or her in a secured nursing home or other facility, which may or may not be less costly than minimum-or-low-security prison facilities. While these reentry programs may be of substantial value in other ways, they are obviously not going to yield the same kind of fiscal cost-savings as an early or conditional release policy that does not simply transfer prisoners from one facility to another, but actually reduces the total prison population by empowering government agencies to grant conditional release to elderly inmates who no longer pose a sufficient public safety threat to justify their continued incarceration.

At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly

American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU). (2012).

This report compiles extensive data detailing epidemic of aging prisoners in the United States. It provides a comprehensive 50-state and federal analysis of the unnecessary incarceration of aging prisoners and provides a fiscal analysis showing the actual amount states would save, on average, by releasing aging prisoners: over $66,000 per year per released prisoner. The report also includes new data showing that the elderly population is growing because of harsh sentencing laws and not because of new crimes, as well as data highlighting the low public safety risks posed by elderly prisoners. At America’s Expense supplies detailed and practical legislative solutions that states and the federal government can implement to address the dramatic and costly growth in the number of elderly prisoners without putting communities at risk.

Appendix:  Model Conditional Release of Aging Prisoners Act – Gives states a guide to use for developing laws.

Cruel and Unusual: US Sentencing Practices in a Global Context

Kwon, Soo-Ryun, Amanda Salter and Dana Marie Isaac. (2012). University of San Francisco, School of Law, Center for Law and Global Justice. May 2012.

“Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.” US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

In the United States, people who are found in possession of drugs, a non-violent offense, can be sentenced to die behind bars. A person can get a 25 year to life sentence for stealing golf clubs if he has committed two previous offenses, or a life sentence if he has stolen small sums of money three times. A person can get a series of consecutive sentences for each of the component parts of his conduct, such as counting each child pornography file as a separate offense, resulting in a 150 year sentence, much longer than if that person had actually molested a child. A person who sells a handful of drugs can face a mandatory sentence of 15 years. In many states, a child can be prosecuted at any age, tried as an adult, and sentenced to life without parole.

U.S. law allows the same defendant to face prosecution twice, by both the federal and state government. And even if legislators decide to enact laws that lighten sentences, the new law does not automatically apply to prisoners already serving their sentences.

All of these sentencing practices—life without the possibility of parole, “three strikes” laws, consecutive sentences, mandatory minimums, juvenile justice laws, dual sovereignty, and non-retroactive application of ameliorative law—are used frequently in the United States in ways they are not in the rest of the world.

These American practices, focused on goals of deterrence and retribution, neglect the possibility of rehabilitation. Meanwhile, international human rights law places social rehabilitation and reformation as the aims of any penitentiary system.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty that the United States has signed and ratified, says, “The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.” By ratifying this document, the United States has agreed that it will uphold this basic human right. Despite this obligation, the United States is an outlier among countries in its sentencing practices.

The U.S. is among the minority of countries (20%) known to researchers as having life without parole (LWOP) sentences. The vast majority of countries that do allow for LWOP sentences have high restrictions on when they can be issued, such as only for murder or for two or more convictions of life sentence-eligible crimes. The number of prisoners serving LWOP sentences is more than 41,000 in the United States. In contrast, there are 59 serving such sentences in Australia, 41 in England, and 37 in the Netherlands. The size of the U.S.’s LWOP population dwarfs other countries’ on a per capita basis as well; it is 51 times Australia’s, 173 times England’s, and 59 times the Netherlands’.

International law and practice indicate that when a change of law will benefit an offender it should apply retroactively. The majority of countries in the world (67%) provide for this type of retroactive application of ameliorative law. In contrast, the U.S. federal government and state legislatures frequently refuse to apply the lighter penalty to those already sentenced. The sentencing practices in the United States persist at the same time that the United States has the largest prison population in the world and the highest incarceration rate in the world. Never before have so many people been locked up for so long and for so little as in the United States.

Elderly Jail Inmates: Problems, Prevalence and Public Health.

Kuhlmann, Robynn and Rick Ruddell. (2005). California Journal of Health Promotion 2005, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 49-60.

Increases in the size of the elderly population in jails and prisons have created considerable challenges for health-care practitioners within correctional systems and public health agencies. This study examined the prevalence of elderly inmates in 134 county jails and some of the challenges that these older inmates confront.  Our findings indicate that the prevalence of elderly inmates in county jails is higher than reported in recent national studies.  Further, these populations were thought to be at high-risk for selfharm, suicide, and victimization by other inmates.  Implications for health care within county jails as well as public health approaches to solving challenges associated with elderly jail inmates are addressed.

Elderly Inmates Burden State Prisons.

Ollove, Michael. (2016). Pew Report. March 17, 2016.

Several states have a mechanism they could use to shed some older prisoners. Louisiana, Ohio and Virginia have “geriatric conditional release” laws that make old age grounds for consideration for an early release. In Virginia, prisoners are automatically considered for release if they are 60 and have served 13 years or if they are 65 and have served five years.

Studies have found that older ex-offenders are less likely than younger ones to commit additional crimes after their release. But politicians and the public don’t seem willing to release former murderers, rapists and sex offenders, even though they are decades removed from their crimes and physically incapable of repeating them, said Liz Gaynes, president of the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that works on behalf of ex-offenders.

Elderly Parole Program, Memorandum

Board of Parole Hearings, State of California. (2014) June 16, 2014

The purpose of this memorandum is to provide an overview of the new Elderly Parole Program. On February 10, 2014, the Three Judge Panel in the Plata/Coleman class action lawsuit ordered CDCR to finalize and implement a new parole process whereby elderly inmates will be referred to the Board of Parole Hearings (board) to determine suitability for parole. The procedures for the new Elderly Parole Program will affect parole suitability hearings scheduled on or after October 1, 2014.

Framing Punishment: Incarceration, Recommended Sentences and Recidivism.

Bushway, Shawn D. and Emily G. Owens. (2013) The Journal of Law and Economics 56(2):301-331. May 2013.

No consensus has emerged about how, or even if, incarceration affects the behavior of convicted offenders. One unexplored mechanism involves the possibility that the disutility of punishment is affected by both the actual punishment an offender receives and the sentence that he thinks could have been given, a psychological effect known as framing. We test for framing effects in punishment by exploiting a legal change in Maryland that altered recommended, but not actual, sentences for a subset of offenders. Using an individual-level data set of convictions, incarceration, and arrests, we find that longer recommended sentences are associated with higher rates of recidivism, conditional on actual punishment. Our results suggest that large discrepancies between the “bark” and “bite” of the criminal justice system may make incarceration less effective at reducing crime.


Incarceration of Elderly Inmates: Research and Data Points.

Report to the Sentencing Guidelines Commission. Office of Financial Management. (2016) Washington State. January 2016.

A recent Sentencing Project report found that one in nine prisoners in the United States, and one in six Washington State prisoners, is serving a life sentence. These figures do not include individuals serving de facto life sentences, i.e., sentences that are so long that prisoners are not expected to leave prison alive.

Elderly Life without Parole (LWOP) Inmates:

  • The average age of incarceration is 25. The average prisoner dies behind bars at age 64. Thus, the average time served by people serving LWOPs is thus 39 years.
  • Inmates older than 55 have an average of three chronic conditions and as many as 20% have a mental illness.
  • Older offenders are less likely to commit additional crimes after their release than younger offenders.
  • Older offenders have consistently had a lower recidivism rate than younger offenders.
  • A 1998 study found that only 3.2 percent of offenders 55 and older returned to prison within a year of release, compared with 45 percent of offenders 18-29 years old.
  • More recent data indicates that while prisoners under 25 have a re-offense rate of over 34%, those over age 50 have a re-offense rate of only 10% Moreover, prisoners over age 55 have a recidivism rate of less than 2%.

Cost to Incarcerate Elderly LWOP Inmates:

Each LWOP sentence will cost Washington State $51,193 each year for 30 years (until age 55). Elderly prisoners over 55 are at least twice as costly to incarcerate as their younger peers. From age 55 until their death at approximately age 64, this prisoner will cost Washington State $102,386 each year, for a total of nine years. Based on these calculations, the sum of the average cost of a life without parole sentence in Washington State is $2,457,264 per prisoner.

  • Taxpayers are now paying over $1.4 million more for each LWOP compared with the cost of life sentences prior to the enactment of the SRA when the average life sentence cost taxpayers $767,895 per prisoner (in 2014 dollars).

Washington’s Geriatric Release Statute:

  • RCW 9.94A.728 authorizes release of offenders who have a serious medical condition that is expected to required costly care or treatment and the offender is physically incapacitated due to age or a medical condition. BUT, this release option is not available to persistent offenders.

Inslee Launches Review of Prison Population Growth.

Jenkins, Austin. (2014) Northwest News Network. June 24, 2014.

Inslee appointed a 21 member taskforce to examine Washington’s sentencing system and look for ways to keep people from going back to prison again and again. “So before we consider investing in a new prison, it really is important for us to take a look at this opportunity to see what smart, common-sense, data-driven, cost-benefit, evaluated efforts we can undergo here,” Inslee said. Inslee said everything is worth considering from prepping inmates better for release to the early release of aging inmates.

It’s About Time: Aging Prisoners, Increasing Costs, and Geriatric Release.

Chiu, Tina. (2012). Center on Sentencing and Corrections, VERA Institute of Justice. April 2012.

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 elderly adults. Because this population has extensive and costly medical needs, states are confronting the complex, expensive repercussions of their sentencing practices. To reduce the costs of caring for aging inmates—or to avert future costs—legislators and policymakers have been increasingly willing to consider early release for those older prisoners who are seen as posing a relatively low risk to public safety.

This report is based upon a statutory review of geriatric release provisions, including some medical release practices that specifically refer to elderly inmates. The review was supplemented by interviews and examination of data in publicly available documents.

Long Sentences, Aging Inmates May Strain Washington’s Clemency System.

Jenkins, Austin. (2014). Northwest News Network. July 15, 2014.

In just a few years, Washington will need another 1,000 prison beds. There’s been talk of building a new state lock-up, but that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when the Supreme Court has said school funding must be the priority.

So what’s the solution? Washington could release some older inmates who are serving long sentences. But lawmakers are wary of a political backlash and the state abolished parole in the 1980s.  That leaves clemency as the remaining pressure-relief valve on the prison system. And that system of mercy may not be up to the task.

Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States.

Human Rights Watch. (2012).

This report is based in part on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in nine states during 2011. We visited 20 prisons in California, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington, and talked with senior headquarters-based corrections officials as well as prison-based staff ranging from wardens to correctional officers. We also interviewed—mostly but not always in privacy—men and women of various ages who were incarcerated in the facilities we visited. Most, but not all, of the facilities or specific units we visited contained a large percentage of older prisoners. We also visited with senior corrections medical personnel and other state officials in Connecticut. In addition, throughout the year we also consulted with numerous correctional and gerontology experts, as well as conducted extensive research in the academic literature on aging and corrections.

Officials should review their sentencing and release laws and practices to determine which can be adjusted to reduce the elderly prisoner population without risking public safety. Meanwhile, corrections officials should review the conditions of confinement for their elderly prisoners, including the services and programs available to them, and make changes as needed to ensure their human rights are respected. A burgeoning geriatric prisoner population has important financial, practical, and moral implications for all Americans, not just those incarcerated. The United States should consider whether such a population is something that the country wants or needs. Human Rights Watch believes it is neither.

Older and Geriatric Offenders: Critical Issues for the 21st Century

Aday, Ronald H. and Jennifer J Krabill (2012). Chapter 7 in L Gideon (Ed.), Special Needs Offenders in Correctional Institutions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

In concluding our discussion of the special needs of the geriatric offender, some degree of attention must be placed on sentencing concerns. It has long been argued that sentences have a differential impact on elders in comparison to their younger counterparts (Muelher-Johnson & Dhami, 2010). For older adults, even the presence of five to ten year terms can often become the equivalent of life sentences. Due to the stressors discussed throughout this chapter, reform is necessary—with policymakers reevaluating statuses that promote lengthy, mandatory minimums. Punitive three-strike policies, for example, must be restructured to ensure that men and women are not detained unnecessarily into their later adult years (Auerhann, 2002; Kerbs, 2000; Mauer, King, & Young, 2004). In looking to the future, it may appear more humane to determine sentence lengths for older adults only after carefully weighing issues such as the percentage of the individuals’ lives that are likely to be remaining and related health problems. Regardless, any number of strategies will have to be implemented to manage the aging prison population and its impact on the correctional system.

Prison, Police, and Programs: Evidence-based Options that Reduce Crime and Save Money

Aos, S. & Drake, E. (2013), (Doc. No. 13-11-1901). Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

This report provides our updated list of evidence-based policy options that reduce crime.  We display prevention, juvenile justice, and adult corrections programs, and we include our initial reviews of prison sentencing and policing.  We also provide an apples-to-apples assessment of the benefits and costs of each option from the perspective of Washington citizens and taxpayers.

Sentences for Adult Felons in Washington: Options to Address Prison Overcrowding: Pt. 2 (recidivism analyses)

Barnoski, R. P. (2004). (Doc. No. 04-07-1201). Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Age at release consistently has a statistically significant association with felony recidivism for all the offender groups. Older offenders recidivate less often than younger offenders.

The amount of earned early release time is related to slightly increased recidivism rates
only for drug offenders. Offenders who do not commit infractions are less likely to re-offend than those who do. An offender’s good behavior in prison is related to decreased recidivism and can be a useful indicator for reducing prison time without endangering public safety.

State Initiatives to Address Aging Prisoners

McCarthy, Kevin E., and Carrie Rose (2013). Connecticut General Assembly, Office of Legislative Research. OLR Research Report 2013-R-0166.

This report provides examples of initiatives to cope with the aging prisoner population in California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington. Other states have similar initiatives.

Testimony of Brie Williams, MD, MS to the US Sentencing Commission: Public Hearing on Compassionate Release and Condition of Supervision.

Williams, Brie, MD, MS. (2016). . February 17, 2016.

Although compassionate release could address fiscal pressures created by the aging prison population, medical and procedural barriers may prevent its rational application. Determining medical eligibility, as distinguished from approval, for compassionate release, is a medical decision and falls within a physician’s scope of practice. Moreover, many states are considering expanding medical eligibility to include physical incapacity and elderly prisoners, in addition to terminal diagnoses. Physicians and other medical professionals thus have an opportunity to use their unique expertise and knowledge of prognosis, geriatrics, cognitive and functional decline, and palliative medicine to ensure that medical criteria for compassionate release are appropriately evidence-based. Using this medical foundation, criminal justice professionals can balance the need for punishment with an eligible individual’s appropriateness for release. As a society, we have incorporated compassionate release into most prison jurisdictions. As a medical profession, we must lend our expertise and ethical suasion to ensure that compassion is fairly delivered.

The Age and Crime Relationship: Social Variation. Social Explanations, The Nurture versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology

Ulmer, Jeffery T. and Darrell Steffensmeier. (2014). The Nurture versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology, edited by K. Beaver, B. Boutwell, and J.C. Barnes. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

An exploration of the relationship between age and crime.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes.

National Research Council. (2014). Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, J. Travis, B. Western, and S. Redburn, Editors. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

After decades of stability from the 1920s to the early 1970s, the rate of incarceration in the United States more than quadrupled in the past four decades. Our work encompassed research on, and analyses of, the proximate causes of the dramatic rise in the prison population and the societal dynamics that supported those proximate causes. Our analysis reviewed evidence of the effects of high rates of incarceration on public safety as well as those in prison, their families, and the communities from which these men and women originate and to which they return. We also examined the effects on U.S. society.

The Painful Price of Aging in Prison: Even as Harsh Sentences are Reconsidered, the Financial – and Human Tolls Mount.

Howitz, Sari (story) and Nikki Kahn (photos). (2015). The Washington Post. May 2, 2015.

This story is the first in a series about the legacy of the war on drugs and efforts to reduce the nation’s prison population.  Today’s prisoners 50 and older represent the fasted growing population in federal correctional facilities.

Washington’s Three Strikes Law: Public Safety and Cost Implications of Life without Parole

Melissa Lee and Beth Colgan. (2011). Washington State: Columbia Legal Services.

This report examines the three strikes law in Washington and those sentenced under it to determine how Washington’s limited criminal justice resources are best deployed. It relies on empirical data and meta-analyses conducted on both the state and national levels, as well as information about the 229 people who, as of 2009, are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole in Washington under the three strikes law. Such information provides guidance on areas of need in the prevention arena, including services related to mental illness, chemical dependency, homelessness, and education. The report concludes that, without sacrificing public safety and in fact while actually improving it, Washington’s criminal justice resources can and should be re-allocated to focus more on prevention and rehabilitation measures and less on the high-cost, low-return life sentences for certain offenders.


  • Create a second look system of review for three strikers.

  • Eliminate the least serious felonies from the list of strike offenses.

  • Amend the compassionate release statute to reverse exclusions based on sentence length.

  • Reinvest savings stemming from reform in preventative and rehabilitation efforts.