Who Are the Old Folks in Prison? Part II

As discussed in Part I, I have gathered data on the Wisconsin prison inmates who are seventy or older. Out of an initial set of 299 inmates, I selected what should be a representative subset of 100 in order to take a closer look at the inmates’ most recent convictions. Thirty-eight of the 100 were convicted of more than one offense in their most recent felony cases. In these cases, I focused just on the conviction that resulted in the longest sentence[1].

In reviewing the offenses of conviction, what stands out most starkly is the prevalence of sexual offenses. Here are the most common statutes, accounting for 78 percent of the cases:
• Wis. Stat. § 948.02 (sexual assault of child)—24 individuals (out of 100)
• 940.01 (first-degree intentional homicide)—18
• 948.025 (repeated acts of sexual assault of same child)—11
• 940.225 (sexual assault)—9
• 346.63 (OWI)—8
• 961.41 (drug offenses)—5
• 948.12 (possession of child pornography)—3

Grouping the 100 cases a little differently, here is a breakdown by offense type[2]:

Offense categories of elderly inmates

Since they made up such a large share of the sample, I decided to dig a little deeper into the older inmates who had convictions for child sex offenses. I found that all of these inmates were white males. The counties of conviction were quite diverse, with the 39 cases coming from 27 different counties.

Since they made up such a large share of the sample, I decided to dig a little deeper into the older inmates who had convictions for child sex offenses. I found that all of these inmates were white males. The counties of conviction were quite diverse, with the 39 cases coming from 27 different counties.

Many of the convictions were relatively recent, with more than one-quarter occurring within the past five years and two-thirds within the past ten years[3]. Given that all of the inmates are currently 70 or older, that means the great majority of convictions occurred when the inmate was already at least in his sixties. Indeed, the average age at the time of conviction was 67.

Notably, the great majority of these child sex offenders (23 of 39) had no other felony cases noted in the DOC data.

A curious phenomenon, then, is the individual who gets through six decades of life without any major run-ins with the law, and then is convicted at an advanced age of an extremely serious child sex crime. This phenomenon seems a major driver of the elderly inmate population, with 28 of the 100 cases in my sample seeming to fit this profile[4].

It should be noted, of course, that a recent date of conviction may or may not correspond with a recent date of offense. It may take several years for an offender to be identified and successfully prosecuted. Delays are perhaps especially common in relation to child sex offenses, which, for a variety of reasons, may go unreported for a long period of time.

Unfortunately, the courts database does not consistently identify offense dates, which means that I cannot tell what proportion of the elderly child sex offenders fit into the old-crime/recent-conviction category, although I did observe in passing that at least a couple of the recent convictions were for offenses that occurred many years ago. Even less can I determine the volume and recency of any uncharged offenses that have been perpetrated by these older inmates. This would, of course, be helpful information to have in the consideration of policy options.

On the whole, sentences for the elderly child sex offenders were quite substantial, especially taking into account age at the time of sentencing. Twenty-nine of 39 were given truth-in-sentencing (“TIS,” i.e., no-parole) sentences. Excluding one who received a life term, the average sentence length was 13.9 years of initial confinement, followed by 10.5 years of extended supervision. Given an average age of 67 at the time of sentencing, it can be expected that some of the sentences are functionally, if not formally, life terms. Among those given indeterminate (i.e., parole-eligible) sentences, the average term length was 18.9 years[5].

Looking at the larger sample of 100, 60 received TIS sentences for their most recent convictions. Excluding four with life terms and one with probation[6], the average TIS sentence is 10.8 years of initial confinement and 8.0 years of extended supervision. Among the 40 with indeterminate sentences for their most recent convictions, at least 13 have life terms. Excluding these and 10 additional inmates for whom sentencing information is not available, the average indeterminate term is 18.4 years. As with the child sex offender subset, inmates in the larger sample tend to have sentences that are consistent with an extremely serious offense, a long criminal history, or both.

Twenty-four of the 100 have release dates within the next two years, and 38 within the next five years[7]. Others will have to wait much longer to get out–in many cases, a decade or more remains on the initial term of confinement.

Overall, from the standpoint of potential policy change, it strikes me that the child sex offenders represent a large and distinct subset of the elderly inmate population that warrants its own, separate analysis–ideally informed by considerably more information than I currently have. The elderly inmates serving life terms for first-degree intentional homicide also represent a distinct, sizable subset that should probably be considered separately—these are the inmates who have committed what is often considered the most serious offense, but they also tend to be the inmates with the oldest convictions (most were convicted more than two decades ago, and several more than three decades ago).

Together, the child sex offenders and the first-degree intentional homicide offenders make up nearly 60 percent of the elderly inmate population. The remaining elderly inmates reflect a great deal of diversity with respect to offense severity, criminal history, time of most recent conviction, sentence length, expected release date, and parole eligibility. An appreciation for this diversity should inform the public conversation about compassionate release and other mechanisms that might provide for a return of elderly inmates to the community. Additionally, an awareness that a substantial minority of elderly inmates are serving time for quite recent convictions should perhaps prompt some consideration of prevention and diversion initiatives that might help to keep some of these older individuals out of prison in the first place.

[1] “Longest sentence” was based on the combined length of prison and extended supervision terms (or just the prison term for the offenses not covered by Wisconsin’s truth-sentencing law). I treated a probation sentence as having a length of zero, unless probation was revoked and a prison sentence then imposed. Occasionally, two (or more) counts “tied” for longest sentence; in those cases, I focused on whichever count appeared first in the court record.

[2] Child sex offenses include violations of §§ 948.02, 948.025, 948.06, and 948.12. Homicide offenses include §§ 940.01 and 940.02. Alcohol and drug offenses include §§ 346.36 and 961.41. Other violent offenses include §§ 940.19, 940.21, 940.23, 940.31, 941.30, 943.32, and 943.87. Other sexual offenses include § 940.225. Miscellaneous offenses include §§ 943.02, 943.10, 943.20, 946.31, 946.42, and 948.04.

[3] The reference point is mid-2018, when the data were collected.

[4] This figure includes 21 who had no other felony cases in the DOC data, and seven more who had a slightly earlier or contemporaneous felony case that also resulted in a first felony conviction after the age of 60. A caveat, of course, is that there may have been other, earlier felony cases that, for one reason or another, do not appear in the DOC data.

[5] This figure excludes one inmate for whom no sentencing information could be found.

[6] The inmate who got probation for his most recent conviction is apparently in prison because supervision was revoked in an earlier case.

[7] By release date, I mean the date indicated in the DOC data for release to extended supervision (TIS sentences) or mandatory release (indeterminate sentences).

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.

Violent Crime Versus Property Crime: Marquette Law School Poll Reveals Differences in Public Attitudes

Public opinion polls typically find a preference for tougher treatment of defendants in the criminal-justice system. However, few polls attempt to disaggregate types of crime. When laypeople are asked what they think should be done with “criminals,” their responses are likely based on the relatively unusual violent and sexual offenses that dominate media coverage of crime. However, punitive attitudes toward such offenses may not necessarily indicate that similar attitudes prevail more generally.

In order to develop a better understanding of the extent to which public attitudes differ based on crime type, I collaborated with Professor Darren Wheelock of the Marquette Social and Cultural Sciences Department on a set of questions in the most recent Marquette Law School Poll. Rather than asking respondents about crime in general, we posed questions regarding violent crime and property crime. Our results were consistent with the expectation that members of the public see these two types of crime in a rather different light.

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Wisconsin’s War on Cocaine, 1986-1990

The new issue of Marquette Lawyer magazine has an excerpt of my book Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era. The excerpt covers changes to drug sentencing in the late 1980s, which were largely motivated by concerns about cocaine, especially in its crack form. As others have observed, the harshly punitive response to the crack epidemic in the 1980s contrasts markedly with the more balanced response to the current opioid epidemic. Given the widespread perception that crack was the drug of poor urban blacks, might the different responses to the two crises be explained, at least in part, by race and class?

U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up

Ringing in the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its data on prisoners in the United States in 2015. After rising consistently for about four decades, the U.S. prison population (state and federal combined) peaked at a little over 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the population has declined steadily, but very slowly. For 2015, the total was a little over 1.5 million, or about 35,000 less than 2014. The continued reductions are encouraging, but must be kept in perspective: the population remains many times above its historic norms. The current rate of 458 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents is over four times greater than the long-term rate of about 100 per 100,000 from before the imprisonment boom. We are still very much in the era of mass incarceration.

The Wisconsin numbers continue to be lower than the national norms, but are moving in the opposite direction. At yearend 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population numbered 22,975, up 1.7 percent from 2014. This amounts to 377 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, Minnesota’s rate was just 196 per 100,000.

Here are a few additional observations:

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My New Book Out Soon: “Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era”

I now have a publication date for my new book: January 17. The excessively long, but nicely descriptive, title is Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway. More information (including how to order a copy) is available through the University of Wisconsin Press. I’ll be doing a release event at Boswell Books in Milwaukee on January 17 at 7:00 p.m.

New Article on Wisconsin Sentencing

My paper on Wisconsin sentencing for Oxford Handbooks Online is now available.  Apologies for the paywall.  Here is the abstract:

This essay provides an overview of sentencing policies and practices in the state of Wisconsin and considers their impact on the state’s imprisonment rate. Current policies and practices are placed in historical context. Since 1980, state policy has increasingly emphasized the role of the local sentencing judge in determining punishment. Most importantly, a 1998 law ended discretionary parole, which had served as a check on the increasing severity of judge-imposed sentences. Although the state’s prison population remains near its record high of the mid-2000s, there seems little interest in adopting new restrictions on judicial sentencing discretion or otherwise restructuring the sentencing and corrections system in a fundamental way. The essay concludes by describing some more modest reforms that seem politically viable in the near term.

Public Attitudes Toward Truth in Sentencing

The final version of my article “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing'” is now available at the BYU Law Review website.  Coauthored with Darren Wheelock, this article is based on research conducted through the Marquette Law School Poll.  Here is the abstract:

In the space of a few short years in the 1990s, forty-two states adopted truth in sentencing (“TIS”) laws, which eliminated or greatly curtailed opportunities for criminal defendants to obtain parole release from prison. In the following decade, the pendulum seemingly swung in the opposite direction, with thirty-six states adopting new early release opportunities for prisoners. However, few of these initiatives had much impact, and prison populations continued to rise. The TIS ideal remained strong. In the hope of developing a better understanding of these trends and of the prospects for more robust early release reforms in the future, the authors conducted public opinion surveys of hundreds of Wisconsin voters in 2012 and 2013 and report the results here. Notable findings include the following: (1) public support for TIS is strong and stable; (2) support for TIS results less from fear of crime than from a dislike of the parole decisionmaking process (which helps to explain why support for TIS has remained strong even as crime rates have fallen sharply); (3) support for TIS is not absolute and inflexible, but is balanced against such competing objectives as cost-reduction and offender rehabilitation, (4) a majority of the public would favor release as early as the halfway point in a prison sentence if public safety would not be threatened, and (5) a majority would prefer to have release decisions made by a commission of experts instead of a judge.

Marquette Poll Reveals Support for Rehabilitation of Prisoners

For the past four years, Darren Wheelock and I have collaborated with Charles Franklin and the Marquette Law School Poll on a series of surveys of public attitudes toward sentencing and corrections policy in Wisconsin.  Our 2015 results, released last week, seem to show remarkably high levels of support for prisoner rehabilitation.  Of those who were asked, more than 80% expressed support for each of the following:

  • Expanding counseling programs for prisoners
  • Expanding job training programs for prisoners
  • Expanding educational programs for prisoners
  • Helping released offenders find jobs

At the same time, there are also indications of substantial, if somewhat lower, levels of support for various punitive policies:

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