The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 24, 2015

Federal prison reform: Who is too old for incarceration?

July 24, 2015

Nationwide, incarcerating an aging person costs roughly double what it takes to incarcerate a younger one. This problem is especially pronounced in the federal system, where people age 50 and older are the fastest growing segment of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population—which itself has grown by 750 percent since 1980 and is experiencing serious overcrowding. This growth in both aging prisoners and the overall BOP population comes at a time of increased bipartisan focus on federal prison reform

Expanding early release for older individuals in the federal prison system—which currently only occurs through BOP’s rarely used compassionate release program—can reduce population and costs. However, policymakers need to consider more than just age when deciding who qualifies for early release.

How do policymakers want to address this issue?

The Second Chance Act of 2007 authorized an early release pilot for nonviolent offenders that only affected a small subset of the federal prison population, since eligibility required that an individual be 65 years of age or older and have served both 10 years and 75 percent of one’s sentence.

Current bills in Congress, including the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, the CORRECTIONS Act, and the SAFE Justice Act, all seek to reduce the age of eligibility to 60 years. The Second Chance Reauthorization Act and the CORRECTIONS Act also propose changing the requirement of time served to two-thirds of one’s sentence, forgoing the 10-year requirement. The SAFE Justice Act does not include any specific requirement of amount or proportion of time served, and instead instructs judges to take time served into account when considering early release.

The evidence supporting early release

We know that individuals age 50 and older have the lowest rates of recidivism in the federal system, and as these people grow older, their rates of recidivism continue to decrease.

However, there is no set definition of who is “aging,” and changing who fits this definition can drastically change who qualifies for early release. In June 2015, only 5 percent of the BOP population was over 60 years old, while 17 percent was over 50 years old.

Meanwhile, we don’t know yet which combinations of age and time served go too far or not far enough. A recent Urban Institute report noted that we need to know more about the ideal age and amount of time served to minimize risk to public safety and of recidivism and maximize cost savings.

Is early release just?

Lawmakers also need to evaluate whether their policies are just for both individuals and the broader prison population. Is it fair to release individuals like white-collar criminals early in their sentences only because they do not pose a risk to public safety? We have to consider the purpose of incarceration for aging individuals, and whether that differs from the goals of incarceration for younger people.

Policymakers should also address the broader racial impact of early release. The aging population within the federal prison system has a greater proportion of white prisoners than the overall prison population, but minorities are disproportionately represented in the overall federal prison population. While early release for aging individuals may reduce costs and lead to a decrease in population, such policies may exacerbate racial disparities in the federal prison system if they are not paired with reforms that target disproportionate minority confinement.

It’s a step in the right direction that federal lawmakers are looking to cut costs and population while ensuring public safety through the expansion of early release. But in seeking these reforms, lawmakers should reflect on the purpose and limits of incarceration for aging individuals along with the broader implications of such action.

A wheelchair bound inmate wheels himself through a check point at the California Medical Facility, in Vacaville, Calif. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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