Photo: Tim Gruber
States could save taxpayers more than $66,000 per year each time they released one of the 246,600 elderly prisoners nationwide, according to a new ACLU report.The report, titled At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly, calls on lawmakers to implement parole reforms to release ageing prisoners who no longer pose a sufficient public safety threat to justify their continued incarceration.
“Extremely disproportionate sentencing policies, fuelled by the ‘tough on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ movements, have turned our prisons into nursing homes, and taxpayers are footing the bill,” ACLU policy counsel Inimai Chettiar said in a press release.
The National Institute of Corrections considers prisoners “ageing” or “elderly” after the age of 50 because lack of appropriate healthcare and access to healthy living in prison (as well as stresses of life behind bars) accelerate the ageing process.
State and federal governments spend approximately $77 billion annually to operate our penal system, with $16 billion of that spent on ageing prisoners (who make up 16 per cent of the prison population).
It costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs twice that — $68,270 — to house an ageing prisoner.
The report notes that the majority of elderly prisoners are not incarcerated for murder, but are in prison for low-level or non-violent crimes and grow old behind bars because of harsh sentencing.
“It is an unwise use of taxpayer dollars to spend enormous amounts of money locking up elderly prisoners who no longer need to be behind bars,” economist William Bunting said.
Elderly prisoners are less than half as likely as others to return to jail for new convictions, and arrests rates in general drop to just over 2 per cent at age 50 and are almost 0 per cent at age 65.
California, a state that has has built one college campus and 21 prisons since 1980, has 27,680 ageing prisoners while the ACLU’s economic analysis found that releasing ageing prisoners would save states an average of $66,294 per year per prisoner. (For comparison, the average U.S. household makes about $40,000 a year in income).
“The nation’s graying prisoner population has become a national epidemic that needs to be addressed immediately,” Chettiar said. “The United States cannot afford to continue to lock people up for no reason.”
Here is a chart from the report that shows the rise of state and federal prisoners age 55 and older:
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