As you probably know, America has a bit of an incarceration problem. This country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with nearly 1% of the population currently behind bars. Over 2.2 million adults are incarcerated in the United States. And while the U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population, it houses 25% of the world’s inmates. Even if you don’t account for population differences, America’s incarceration numbers are mind-boggling.
The U.S. prison population is even larger than that of China – a country with about 3 times the total population of the U.S. and a reputation for being very authoritarian and punitive towards criminals.
This didn’t happen overnight, and the people who created the laws and policies that led to our current situation probably didn’t intend for this to be the end result. The prison population skyrocketed beginning in the early 1980s, when the U.S. was experiencing unacceptably high violent crime rates. This led the federal government, and state governments, to enact policies meant to “get tough” on crime. One tactic used to deter crime was to lengthen prison sentences, and expanding the number of offenses eligible for life imprisonment.
As a result, the many thousands of people given decades-long (or life) sentences 30 years ago are starting to get old. For their own safety, they sometimes need to be separated from the rest of the prison population. And they’re prone to all the medical problems associated with age – heart disease, stroke, dementia, and others. Since the government picks up the tab for prisoners’ medical care, the cost of keeping these individuals incarcerated is much higher than the average prisoner. On top of this, prisoners 55 and older already represent a significant portion of the prison population (there are over 120,000 of them), and they are the fastest-growing population in U.S. prisons.
The ACLU just released a report arguing that many of these prisoners could be released, and that doing so would pose very little risk to public safety. After all, they contend, a senior citizen is pretty unlikely to commit a violent crime. Most elderly people simply can’t commit many violent crimes, even if they want to. And keeping senior citizens in jail costs state and federal governments about $16 billion per year. In an era of fiscal austerity, most people would welcome that kind of savings.
Critics, however, point out that (1) releasing these prisoners is not without risk, and (2) the money that the taxpayers save on keeping these people incarcerated may simply be spent taking care of them after they’re released, via Medicare and Medicaid, in addition to housing subsidies, food stamps, and other welfare benefits. So, it’s not clear if this would actually save governments much money, though it’s hard to imagine how it could cost them any more than is already spent on them.
But as a practical matter, it’s hard to see what society gains by keeping them locked up. Are these men and women likely to re-offend? Probably not. So nobody is being protected by keeping them locked up.
Opponents of this move make a few good points, however. First, they argue that it would send the wrong message to younger would-be offenders, giving them the idea that they, too, might be released once they become elderly and enfeebled. In theory, this could reduce the deterrent value of long prison sentences. Still, if a would-be criminal in his 20’s actually weighs the sentence he’s likely to face (if he’s caught) before committing a serious crime, would spending 50+ years in prison, only to be released in your 70s’ or 80s’, seem much better than spending your entire life in prison? As someone in my 20’s (though I don’t plan on committing any felonies any time soon), I can say that both of those options seem pretty terrible.
That raises another question: if no support system is in place on the outside, would releasing elderly prisoners, who have been incarcerated for decades (and think of how much the world has changed over the last few decades), be any more humane than keeping them in prison, or in prison hospitals?
Think about it: if a person in his 70’s or 80’s is isolated from society for the last two thirds of his life, do you think he’d take well to being thrown back into the world? Not likely. Without some kind of support system, elderly prisoners who are released seem virtually guaranteed to become homeless, possibly turning to crime simply to survive.
As is often the case, there’s no perfect solution to this problem, which is really just one of the many problems created by the overcrowding of our prisons, which, in turn, is a symptom of the over-criminalization of American law.
Personally, I believe that we need to completely rethink the types of crimes that warrant imprisonment, and what purpose prisons should serve. First of all, I think virtually all nonviolent drug offenses (especially first offenses) should not be eligible for jail time. Instead, the money that would have been spent incarcerating these offenders should be directed to mandatory rehabilitation programs for drug addicts.
Also, prisons should really focus on rehabilitation. While most penal systems in the U.S. pay lip service to the notion of practicing rehabilitation over retribution, few seem to make much of an effort to implement it. However, if we did, I would wager that more people who end up in prison at an old age would be better-suited to reenter society upon their release.