The need for compassionate release is not hard to discern. When defendants are sentenced to a term of imprisonment, they are sentenced as they are at that moment in time. But as time progresses, a prisoner’s situation will change. Inmates grow older, face deteriorating health and experience changing family circumstances. These result in significant elderly and medical costs.
While there is certainly a human element to compassionate release, the Bureau of Prisons is statutorily limited to extraordinary and compelling reasons for a reduction in sentence. These are generally divided into three categories: medical, non-medical, and elderly.
This article is focused on the underlying data as it concerns the number of elderly federal prisoners and the cost to house them, as well as the substantial costs incurred when the Bureau of Prisons must provide medical care for this, and other, inmate populations.
The Number and Cost of Elderly Inmates
In 1981, according to the ACLU, there were approximately 9,000 state and federal prisoners who were aged 55 and older. The same study estimated that this number would rise to over 400,000 by 2030. Between 1999 and 2013, the number of state and federal prisoners aged 55 and older increased 234 percent, from 43,000 to 144,500.
Incarcerating the elderly is a significant expense. According to the National Institute of Corrections, prisons spend at least twice as much to incarcerate the elderly as they do to incarcerate younger prisoners. Experts estimate that elderly prisoners cost prison systems between $60,000 and $70,000 per year. The higher costs stem from the much greater health care needs of the elderly population.
In response to the growth in elderly population, most states and the federal government have created compassionate release or geriatric release programs. These programs allow for the early release of select prisoners if they meet certain specific criteria. Typically, the prisoner must be suffering from either a chronic and debilitating illness or a terminal illness. Sometimes other extraordinary and compelling circumstances allow for compassionate release, such as the death or incapacitation of a child’s caregiver or the incapacitation of a spouse.
Forty-five states and the federal government have some form of compassionate release or geriatric release program. Unfortunately, compassionate release is rarely used, due to political considerations, public opinion, narrow criteria for eligibility, and long, complicated procedural hoops that often leave the elderly prisoner dead in prison prior to final approval.
The elderly and medical costs to incarcerate older inmates really drives the point home: if older inmates recidivate at such a low rate and cost so much to incarcerate, then why do we insist on incarcerating them for such long periods of time?
The Cost of Medical Care in Prisons
Compassionate release programs make a lot of sense, however. They save taxpayers money; the DOJ estimated that the average cost of a prisoner was $28,893 in 2013, while the average cost of a prisoner held in a federal medical center was $57,962. Perhaps more importantly, these reduction in sentence programs do not decrease public safety. According to the DOJ office of Inspector General, released prisoners over age 55 have a 15 percent recidivism rate, as compared to the population-wide rate of 41 percent. Moreover, prisoners granted compassionate release recidivate at a paltry rate of 3.5 percent.
The need for robust compassionate release regimes is even more apparent when considering two important facts about crime and prison in the age of mass incarceration: As prisoners age, their risk of crime goes down, but their health gets much worse. Noted criminologist and scholar Jonathan Simon summed this dilemma up in his 2014 book Mass Incarceration on Trial:
“Prisoners do have life stages; their bodies age. They change and often mature. When this happens largely in prison (or in and out of prison), the change is mostly for the worse, especially in terms of health. Chronic illnesses get worse if one is prevented from trying to make them better. Prison makes them much, much worse. For almost all adults, the crime and illness curves run inversely; the risk of crime starts high and ends up low, while the risk of illness starts off low . . . and ends up high.”
The Common Sense of Compassionate Release Programs
Compassionate release programs are an important and necessary part of an enlightened criminal justice system. State legislatures and the federal Congress should expand these programs so that the gains in humanity and dollars that they promise can be realized. As has been shown above, releasing elderly and infirm inmates does not decrease public safety, but what it does decrease are the astronomical costs of housing these inmates. This is something that everyone should support from a common sense, if not a humanitarian, position.
If you have other questions about elderly and medical costs, please call us at 802-444-4357.