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America's Prison Population Getting Older

As America sees thousands of baby boomers turn 65 every day, states are dealing with yet another unseen consequence of the "get tough on crime" stance that has dominated criminal sentencing for decades. It is becoming difficult to care for older inmates.

According to a report produced by Human Rights Watch, the number of inmates age 55 and over is growing very quickly. Prisons are not equipped to handle the responsibility of caring for inmates with chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. They also have little room for prisoners who are disabled or who are plagued by Alzheimers or dementia. The cost of caring for these inmates is also seen to be problematic. Housing older prisoners can cost nearly nine times more than younger prisoners.

With most states experiencing budget deficits, the future of jailing offenders is a real issue that must be considered carefully. The report found that the number of imprisoned men and women older than 55 has grown at a rate six times that of the rest of the prison population. 124,000 inmates older than age 55 reside in state and federal prisons. The number of prisoners 65 years and older also grew exponentially. In fact, 26,200 people 65 years and older are behind bars. Overall, the number of older inmates increased by 63 percent, while the entire jail population only grew by 0.7 percent.

Because of these numbers, prison officials realize that they must consider geriatric facilities to keep up with aging prisoners. Jamie Feller, who authored the report, believes that supervised release programs may be appropriate for inmates who are no longer a threat to public safety. Ultimately, cost benefits will guide policy decisions regarding older inmates.

Source: New York Times "Number of Older Inmates Grows, Stressing Prisons" January 26, 2012

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