Who Are the Old Folks in Prison? Part I

Nationally, the number of senior citizens in prison has grown dramatically in recent years. In Wisconsin, for instance, the number of prisoners aged sixty or older grew from just 202 (or 1.2 percent of the total) in 2000 to 1,231 (5.4%) by the end of 2016. Such increases should be of public concern for a number of reasons, including the exceptionally high costs of incarcerating the elderly. To a great extent, these costs are related to the prevalence of chronic illnesses and physical and mental disabilities among older inmates. One national study estimated that the average cost of imprisoning a senior is about twice the overall average. In general, it is less costly to manage chronic health problems in the community than in prisons, which are not designed to serve primarily as hospitals or nursing homes, and which tend to be located in rural areas at some distance from specialized treatment facilities.

Fiscal and humanitarian concerns alike have sparked considerable interest in recent years in “compassionate release” and other mechanisms that might hasten the return of elderly prisoners to the community. On the other hand, there are also countervailing concerns that early release might endanger the public or depreciate the seriousness of the underlying criminal offenses. On both sides of the debate, there seems a tendency to rely on unexamined stereotypes about who the old folks in prison are—the frail, harmless grandparent serving an excessively harsh sentence for a long-ago offense, versus the confirmed predator whose dangerousness can never be fully erased by age.

In order to develop a clearer picture of this population, and with the help of two diligent research assistants[1], I gathered a substantial body of data on the Wisconsin prisoners who are aged seventy or older. In some respects, the information surprised me, although I should be clear upfront that our data also leave many important questions unanswered. I suspect that both sides in the compassionate release debate will find at least some support for their positions in what follows.

A word about methodology: data were collected in the summer of 2018 from the on-line offender locator maintained by the Department of Corrections, searching for offenders by birth year. Note that these data only include individuals who are held in state institutions; those who are detained in local jails are not part of this study. For a subset of our offenders, as indicated below, additional data were collected from the Wisconsin courts database.

We identified 299 inmates who were at least seventy years old. The average age was 74.6, with a high of 101. The group also included two nonagenarians. Only eight (2.7 percent) were women. By contrast, 6.3 percent of the overall adult prison population is female. Women are thus substantially underrepresented among the oldest inmates.

As to race, the group was about 83 percent white, 16 percent black, 1 percent Native American/American Indian, and less than 1 percent Asian. By contrast, the overall adult inmate population is only about 53 percent white, indicating that whites are substantially overrepresented among the oldest prisoners[2].

Even more than such demographic information, I was keen to gather data about the criminal history of the elderly inmates. However, this requires some painstaking cross-referencing of the DOC and courts databases. For present purposes, I contended myself with taking a closer look at a 100-person sample of the original 299[3].

In the sample of 100, the average age is 74.5. Three percent are women, 84 percent are white, and 16 percent are black. The sample thus seems demographically very similar to the overall group of 299.

Not surprisingly—since this is the standard path to prison—all 100 have faced felony charges in at least one case[4]. At least 50 have faced felony charges in multiple cases[5], broken out as follows:
• 2 cases—9
• 3 cases—22
• 4 cases—10
• 5 cases—6
• 6 cases—2
• 7 cases—1

There is, to be sure, a great deal of criminal history among the 50 offenders with multiple cases—they average about 3.5 felony cases per offender, and each case may include multiple charges (more about the charge data below). It seems likely that many of these elders are in prison now because the sentencing judges in their most recent cases found the length of their rap sheets to be quite worrisome.

But what are we to make of the other half of the sample—the offenders who apparently faced sentencing in their most recent case without a prior felony conviction? Presumably, since they are all now in prison, many of these offenders were convicted of extremely serious crimes during their one experience in felony court[6].

In order to get a better sense of offense severity and recency, we collected additional data about each offender’s most recent felony case[7].

This cut at the data also conveys some sense of where the oldsters in prison come from. Our sample of 100 offenders actually presents a surprising degree of geographic diversity, with the most recent convictions occurring in forty-five different counties. Eighteen were convicted most recently in Milwaukee County, which seems lower than expected, given that more than one-third of overall prison admissions in Wisconsin have come from Milwaukee in recent years. The underrepresentation of Milwaukee in the older cohort may help to explain the underrepresentation of blacks, given the concentration of Wisconsin’s black population in Milwaukee County. In any event, following Milwaukee as a source of elder inmates were Kenosha (eight of the 100), Dane (seven), and Waukesha (six). Collectively, it seems that smaller, rural counties are overrepresented in the older cohort.

As to date of conviction, there was also extraordinary variation, from May 1973 to July 2018. Fully one-quarter of the sample had convictions that were less than three years old. Clearly, it is a mistake to assume that all or nearly all of our older inmates are serving out very long sentences for very old crimes. Many have committed offenses while in their sixties or even older. On the other hand, a substantial minority (29 percent) have gone 20 years or more without a fresh conviction. It is the old inmates with old convictions who may most warrant a careful reexamination if we are concerned with the efficient use of scarce prison beds—based on general patterns of declining recidivism risk over time, it is likely that at least some of the old-old’s present little ongoing threat to public safety.

In my next post, I will explore the offenses of conviction in a more detailed way, as well as sentencing and expected release dates.

[1] I am grateful to law students Lance Duroni and Mitchell Kiffmeyer for their painstaking data-collection efforts.

[2] Ethnic categories like Hispanic or Latino are not broken out in the DOC data.

[3] In selecting these 100, I excluded three inmates who were not serving prison sentences, but were instead either on a community corrections hold at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (two) or in civil commitment (one).

[4] The DOC data also indicate that at least 17 had at least one misdemeanor case.

[5] This figure is based on charges in the DOC database, which may be an undercount. For instance, if a case resulted in an acquittal or a sentence that did not involve any commitment of the defendant to DOC custody or supervision, it is not clear to me that the case would show up in the DOC data.  

[6] For what it’s worth, the DOC data indicate that 5 of these 50 had at least one prior misdemeanor case, including three who had two misdemeanor cases.

[7] “Most recent” was determined by reference to which felony case in the DOC data had the most recent date of conviction. Occasionally, we came across individuals who had two separate cases with convictions on the same date. In these circumstances, I focused on the case with the longest sentence (prison plus extended supervision). For these purposes, I treated a probation sentence as having a length of zero, unless probation was revoked and a prison sentence then imposed. In cases with multiple counts of conviction, and hence multiple sentences, I went with the count that had the longest sentence.

My New Book Is Out

My new book, Prisons and Punishment in America: Examining the Facts, is now available. Structured as a series of questions and answers, the book synthesizes the law and social science on sentencing, corrections, and prisoner reentry. Individual chapters cover:

  • Sentencing law and practice
  • Alternatives to incarceration
  • Experience and consequences of incarceration
  • Release and life after prison
  • Women, juveniles, and other special offender populations
  • Causes and significance of mass incarceration in the United States
  • Race, ethnicity, and punishment
  • Public opinion, politics, and reform

The book is intended to be accessible to readers who do not have training in law or social science, but I also hope that there are some aspects of the book that will be of interest even to those who are already quite familiar with the workings of the criminal justice system.

My New Book Is Out, Explains Persistence of Mass Incarceration in America Despite Two Decades of Reform Efforts

My new book, The Failure of Sentencing Reform, is now out. (Publisher webpage here; Amazon here.) The book is a sort of coming full circle for me. Back in 2002, near the start of my career as a law professor, I wrote a short essay entitled “The New Politics of Sentencing,” in which I heralded bipartisan sentencing reforms that had recently been adopted in a handful of states. The reforms focused particularly on reversing excessive drug imprisonment and resulted in large part from the fiscal pressures created by mass incarceration. “Faced with crushing budget deficits,” I predicted, “states will no doubt continue to look to corrections as a source of cost-savings.”

Fifteen years later, my prediction has been confirmed: nearly all of the states have now adopted reforms that roll back mandatory minimums, permit earlier release from prison, or promote alternatives to incarceration. Yet, the national prison population stands today essentially where it was in 2002. This is the failure I explore in the book. In particular, I highlight two fundamental flaws with reform efforts to date: (1) an excessive emphasis on moving non-violent drug offenders out of prison, even though this population had not been a major driver of mass incarceration; and (2) an excessive reliance on prosecutorial, judicial, and correctional discretion, with little attention to the fiscal and political considerations that push officials to err on the side of incarceration.

Wisconsinites Give Criminal Justice System Poor Marks, Especially for Offender Rehabilitation

We expect a lot from our criminal-justice system, and we don’t seem very impressed with the results we are getting.  These are two of the notable lessons that emerge from the most recent Marquette Law School Poll of Wisconsin residents, the results of which were released earlier today.

In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to assess the importance of five competing priorities for the criminal-justice system.  As to each of the five, a majority indicated that the priority was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.”  The five priorities were:

  • Making Wisconsin a safer place to live (91.6% said either very important or absolutely essential)
  • Ensuring that people who commit crimes receive the punishment they deserve (88.1%)
  • Keeping crime victims informed about their cases and helping them to understand how the system works (81.0%)
  • Rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society (74.1%)
  • Reducing the amount of money we spend on imprisoning criminals (51.2%)

The especially high level of support for “making Wisconsin a safer place to live” was notable in light of the much smaller number of respondents (21.4%) who said that they or an immediate family member had ever been the victim of a serious crime.  This is line with results from last July’s Poll, which indicated that more than 85% of Wisconsinites feel safe walking alone in their neighborhoods at night.  Still, making the state safer remains a high priority for more than 90% of Wisconsin residents.

Respondents were separately asked how well the system was performing along five separate dimensions.   Continue reading “Wisconsinites Give Criminal Justice System Poor Marks, Especially for Offender Rehabilitation”

Which States Have Reduced Their Prison Populations in the Past Decade?

By 2002, in the wake of a recession that caused major fiscal challenges in many states, there was an increasingly widespread recognition that the American imprisonment boom of the 1980s and 1990s was not economically sustainable.  Dozens of states adopted new sentencing and corrections policies that were intended to restrain further growth in imprisonment.  These reforms seem to have had some success, as imprisonment rates finally stabilized after so many years of explosive growth.  However, very little progress has been made toward bringing U.S. imprisonment rates back down to our historical norms.  The “if you build it, they will come” principle seems in evidence — after so much prison capacity was built in the boom years, we’ve found ways to keep using it even as crime rates have tumbled down.

A few states have had success, however, in downsizing their prison populations.  Here are the ten states whose prison populations dropped between December 2002 and December 2012:

New York             -19%
New Jersey           -17%
California             -16%
Connecticut          -15%
Michigan              -14%
Maryland              -9%
South Carolina     -5%
Wisconsin             -5%
Rhode Island        -2%
Hawaii                  -1%

Even the largest decreases on the list are rather small compared with the size of the pre-2002 increases.  Nonetheless, some might wonder whether reduced imprisonment has resulted in more crime.  With that concern in mind, I gathered data on violent crime in the five states that experienced double-digit drops in imprisonment.   Continue reading “Which States Have Reduced Their Prison Populations in the Past Decade?”

New Report Offers More Complete Calculation of Costs of Imprisonment

How much does imprisonment cost a state’s taxpayers?  The question is conventionally answered simply by looking at the budget of the state’s department of corrections.  In some states, however, a substantial share of the imprisonment-related expenses are borne by other state agencies or otherwise do not appear in the corrections department’s budget.  In order to provide a more complete accounting of the costs of imprisonment, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice recently collected and analyzed data from forty states (including Wisconsin).  Their findings were published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter at 25 Fed. Sent. Rep. 68 (2012).

The Vera researchers identified eleven categories of costs that are not included in corrections budgets.  The most important of these, amounting to almost $2 billion in costs nationally in 2010, took the form of gaps in the funding of health benefits for retired corrections employees.  In some states, this and other off-the-budget costs added up to a large share of total prison costs.  For instance, in both Connecticut and Illinois, about one-third of the total prison cost was outside the corrections budget.  When hidden expenses are so high, the public may have a hard time evaluating the true cost-effectiveness of state sentencing and corrections policies.

Wisconsin’s hidden costs, at 8.5 percent of the total, were somewhat below the average among the forty states studied.   Continue reading “New Report Offers More Complete Calculation of Costs of Imprisonment”

Incarceration and Collateral Damage: Prof. Traci Burch to Speak at Marquette on Nov. 29

We live in an era of unprecedented mass incarceration. Since the mid-1970′s, America’s imprisonment rate has quintupled, reaching heights otherwise unknown in the western world. We embarked on this incarceration binge with little understanding of what impact it would have on families and communities. The past fifteen years, however, have witnessed a great outpouring of research and writing on the collateral effects of imprisonment. Those who work in the criminal-justice system should be – and I think increasingly are – knowledgeable about the real impact that their work has on the lives of the many human beings who are connected to each incarcerated person.

Practitioners (and students) who would like to learn more about this important issue will have a wonderful opportunity to do so in two weeks, when Professor Traci Burch of Northwestern University comes to Marquette Law School to speak on the “The Collateral Consequences of Incarceration.” Here is the description:

Dr. Burch will discuss the effects of mass incarceration on families and communities on Thursday, November 29th. This talk is based in part on her forthcoming book, Punishment and Participation: How Criminal Convictions Threaten American Democracy (University of Chicago Press). Dr. Burch will discuss how criminal justice policies shape disease, crime, domestic partner relationships, children and voting participation in low-income communities.

This event is co-sponsored by Marquette’s Department of Political Science, Law School, Klinger College of Arts and Sciences, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, Department of Social and Cultural Sciences, and Institute for Urban Life.

The talk will begin at 5:15, with an informal reception and light refreshments to follow. Additional information and a link to register for the talk are here.

For Punishment, Do Costs Count?

In my previous post, I discussed some of the fascinating results from the recent Marquette University Law School Poll, in which about 700 Wisconsin residents were asked various questions about crime and punishment.  In this post, I’ll consider what the Poll results have to say about a crucial question for sentencing policy and politics: do costs matter, or are the interests served by punishment of such overriding social importance that expense is no object at sentencing?

This question is related to another question I raised in the previous post: is punishment valued more in instrumental or symbolic terms?  If people look to punishment primarily as a way to decrease crime and increase public safety (the instrumental approach), then costs seem to have a natural place in the equation.  As much as we value our safety, there are always limits to what we are willing to spend to protect ourselves.    Few of us hire body guards, or purchase bulletproof vests, or build panic rooms in our homes — the small reductions in risk that we would enjoy simply do not seem worth the cost and inconvenience, and there seems nothing odd about thinking of risk in these sorts of cost-benefit terms.  But if punishment is instead viewed in symbolic terms — as making a statement about who we are as a people and what our deepest moral values are — then cost considerations seem out of place.  It would make us uncomfortable to say, “X is the right thing to do, but I’m not going to do it because it is too expensive.”

The Poll did not ask the big philosophical question about costs directly, but several questions seem to get at it indirectly.  The answers suggest some real ambivalence and division in public attitudes.

Continue reading “For Punishment, Do Costs Count?”

New Report on Criminal-Justice Reforms in 2011: States Continue to Look for Ways to Cut Costs

In a new report entitled “The State of Sentencing 2011: Developments in Policy and Practice,” Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project summarizes the most recent set of criminal-justice reforms adopted across the United States.  Continuing a recurring theme in recent years, many of these reforms are intended to reduce incarceration numbers and corrections budgets.  Here are some highlights:

Continue reading “New Report on Criminal-Justice Reforms in 2011: States Continue to Look for Ways to Cut Costs”

A Tale of Three States, Pt. 3: Harsh Hoosiers

In the first post in this series, I explored the large gap between the incarceration rates of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In the second, I discussed racial disparities in the incarcerated populations of the two states.  The disparities in both states are wide, although Wisconsin’s are somewhat larger.  In this entry, I add a third state, Indiana, to the statistical comparisons.  As another medium-sized midwestern state, one might expect that Indiana would have criminal-justice numbers that are similar to Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s.  Indiana’s numbers, however, point to a criminal-justice sustem that is much larger and harsher than those of its northern neighbors.

As detailed in the table that appears after the jump, Indiana’s imprisonment rate (about 460 per 100,000) easily outstrips Wisconsin’s (387) and dwarfs Minnesota’s (178).  Perhaps even more surprisingly, Indiana’s probation population also exceeds Minnesota’s.  My Minnesota-Wisconsin comparison suggested that Wisconsin imprisons many defendants who would get probation in Minnesota, leading to a much smaller probation population in the former than the latter.  But Indiana seems to incarcerate the same way that Wisconsin does, without any accompanying reduction in the probation numbers.

For that reason, Indiana’s total supervised population of 167,872 is the largest of the three states (although Minnesota, with the smallest overall population of three, still has a somewhat larger per capita supervised population, thanks to its enormous per capita probation number).

Indiana also leads the way in crime.

Continue reading “A Tale of Three States, Pt. 3: Harsh Hoosiers”