What’s behind New York State’s elderly prison boom?
by Rachel Gandy, June 29, 2015
Over the last 15 years, New York managed to do what almost all other states couldn’t: it dramatically reduced its prison population. The reforms were wide-ranging, but they left one group behind—the elderly.
The rapid decline of all age groups under 50 years old and the rapid increase in people over 50 can be seen most clearly in this graph of the New York State prison population by age:
While the number of people in prison under the age of 30 has been in almost constant decline since the mid 1990s, the number of incarcerated people in their 30s or 40s has been declining for about a decade. Throughout this period the number of people in prison aged 50 and older has been on a consistent and troubling rise.
There are only two possible explanations for this pattern:
- The elderly could be on a crime wave, driving the increase in older people behind bars. (Not true, as we explain below.) Or,
- Older people aren’t being released from prison.
The first theory of an elderly crime wave is easily disproved by the graph below showing the age of people sent to New York State prisons each year:
The reason for this pattern unfortunately lies in the history of New York State’s sentencing laws and their current flawed parole practices. Many of the older people in prison have very long — but very old — sentences for violent offenses. And sadly, despite all of the other reforms, the parole board gives too much weight to the severity of the original offense, and too little weight to two key issues: people’s accomplishments while incarcerated and the low risks that elderly and infirm people pose to public safety.
Putting common sense back into parole decisions would be an excellent way to reduce the growing number of elderly people behind bars in New York State.
For further reading, see:
- Our 2014 article and interview with Mujahid Farid, founder of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) Campaign.
- The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign website.