Harsher policies and longer prison sentences have led to an increase in the number of elderly adults, those over the age of 50, throughout our nation’s correctional facilities. These inmates are more likely to have health problems because they often come from poor backgrounds, have a greater likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse, and likely had restricted access to health care prior to incarceration. Compared with the younger inmates, older inmates have higher rates of both mild and serious health conditions, such impaired movement, functional disabilities, mental illness, increased risk of major diseases, and a need for assistance with daily living activities. Further, hearing loss, vision problems, arthritis, hypertension, and dementia are much more common among older inmates.
As the number of elderly prisoners increase, so do the number of medical problems and the amount of resources needed to treat such problems. There are currently 1,123 inmates over the age of 50 incarcerated throughout Minnesota. Keeping these inmates behind bars is incredibly expensive. Health care costs for older inmates are much higher than for younger inmates. Current estimates suggest that it costs about $70,000 a year to incarcerate an elderly inmate, whereas younger inmates cost approximately $22,000. States, including Minnesota, are beginning to realize the expensive repercussions of their sentencing practices, and must consider resources carefully during the next few years as the number of elderly prisoners continues to grow and the need to reduce costs of caring for these prisoners becomes absolutely necessary. The central argument for releasing elderly inmates is that society cannot afford the medical and personal care they require.
In attempt to manage the increasing cost, legislators and policymakers should consider early release for older prisoners who pose a low risk to public safety. While it is critical that policy-makers weigh the cost-saving benefits of elderly and terminally-ill inmate releases with the need to ensure justice and public safety, it is important to remember that most elderly inmates are no longer a threat to society. Inmates who are physically impaired are not a danger to society because they are actually incapable of committing further crime, while others are completely rehabilitated and no longer care to. Inmates who are no longer a threat should be released to a less costly type of care – nursing homes or halfway houses that will provide such care.