As harsher policies have led to longer prison sentences, often with a limited possibility of parole, correctional facilities throughout the United States are home to a growing number of elderly adults. Because this population has extensive and costly medical needs, states are confronting the complex, expensive repercussions of their sentencing practices. To reduce the costs of caring for aging inmates—or to avert future costs—legislators and policymakers have been increasingly willing to consider early release for those older prisoners who are seen as posing a relatively low risk to public safety.
This report is based upon a statutory review of geriatric release provisions, including some medical release practices that specifically refer to elderly inmates. The review was supplemented by interviews and examination of data in publicly available documents.
At the end of 2009, 15 states and the District of Columbia had provisions for geriatric release. However, the jurisdictions are rarely using these provisions. Four factors help explain the difference between the stated intent and the actual impact of geriatric release laws: political considerations and public opinion; narrow eligibility criteria; procedures that discourage inmates from applying for release; and complicated and lengthy referral and review processes.
This report offers recommendations for responding to the disparities between geriatric release policies and practice, including the following:
States that look to geriatric release as a cost-saving measure must examine how they put policy into practice. For instance, they should review the release process to address potential and existing obstacles.
More analysis is needed to accurately estimate overall cost savings to taxpayers—and not just costs shifted from departments of corrections to other agencies.
More effective monitoring, reporting, and evaluation mechanisms can improve assessments of the policies’ impact.
Creative strategies allowing older individuals to complete their sentences in the community should be piloted and evaluated.
Finally, to protect public safety, states should consider developing relevant risk- and needs-assessment instruments, as well as reentry programs and supervision plans, for elderly people who are released from prison.