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.

New Cases on the Constitutionality of Long Sentences for Juveniles: The Graham Saga Continues

In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court barred the sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for crimes committed by anyone under eighteen years of age. Grounded in the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment, the Court’s holding recognized only one exception: juvenile LWOP might be permissible in cases involving homicide.

Despite its seemingly straightforward character, the Graham holding has spawned considerable litigation in the lower courts over its scope and application. Two interesting appellate decisions from last month highlight some of the difficulties.

In the first, U.S. v. Mathurin, the Eleventh Circuit had to consider whether a 685-month prison term should be treated as the functional equivalent of an LWOP sentence for Eighth Amendment purposes.   Continue reading “New Cases on the Constitutionality of Long Sentences for Juveniles: The Graham Saga Continues”

After Return from Prison, Friends Can Be Key to Success or Failure

New research highlights the importance of friends in determining whether returning prisoners will commit new crimes. A considerable body of prior research has demonstrated the importance of family relationships to the returning prisoner, but a new study John Boman and Thomas Mowen suggests that peer relationships may exert an even greater influence over success or failure.

Boman and Mowen collected data on a sample of 625 serious and violent male offenders, including their self-reported substance abuse and new criminal activity over a fifteen-month period after release from prison. The data also included the offenders’ assessment of their family support and the criminal histories of their closest friends.

After controlling for a number of variables, Boman and Mowen identified several factors that proved to be statistically significant predictors of post-release recidivism.   Continue reading “After Return from Prison, Friends Can Be Key to Success or Failure”

Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that juveniles given a life sentence for nonhomicide crimes must be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” But what makes a release opportunity “meaningful”? The Court’s decision earlier today in Virginia v. LeBlanc suggests that the threshold may not be as high as some hoped.

LeBlanc was convicted of committing a rape when he was 16 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of conventional parole. On the face of it, this would seem a clear violation of Graham. However, in federal habeas proceedings, the state argued that LeBlanc would have his “meaningful opportunity” through a geriatric release program, which permits the release of some inmates who are age sixty or older.

Since many other states also have geriatric release programs, the issue presented by LeBlanc has important, national ramifications for the strength of the Eighth Amendment right recognized in Graham.

A district judge and then a panel of the Fourth Circuit held in LeBlanc’s favor. The Fourth Circuit noted the highly discretionary nature of the geriatric release decision under Virginia law, which effectively permitted the releasing authority to disregard an applicant’s “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” contrary to Graham. 841 F.3d 256, 269 (4th Cir. 2016).

A unanimous Supreme Court reversed today in a brief per curiam opinion.   Continue reading “Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?”

New Research Suggests Potential of Prison Furloughs, But Shadow of Willie Horton Still Looms

It remains the paradigmatic moment in the modern history of tough-on-crime politics. In  the summer of 1988, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Governor of Massachusetts, seemed to be cruising toward a presidential election victory in November. Then, Republican operatives began to pummel him for a horrific failure in Massachusetts’s prison furlough program. This program offered short leaves for inmates to spend time at home, which was thought to help prepare them for their permanent release. The program had a good track record until an inmate named Willie Horton absconded during one of his releases and brutally assaulted a young couple. As the Horton story became more widely known nationally, Dukakis’s lead in the polls evaporated. His eventual loss seemed to confirm that politicians could no longer afford even a tangential association with policies or programs that were perceived to be soft on crime.

The Horton story reverberated for years across the whole field of criminal justice, but perhaps its most direct impact was a sharp constriction in prison furlough programs, which had previously been widely accepted and utilized by American corrections officials.

As furlough programs faded away, so, too, did research on their effectiveness. Although several older studies suggested that furloughs might help to reduce post-release recidivism, there has been a growing need for updated research.

A new paper by L. Maaike Helmus & Marguerite Ternes helps to fill the gap.   Continue reading “New Research Suggests Potential of Prison Furloughs, But Shadow of Willie Horton Still Looms”

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.

Good Time in Wisconsin: Why and How

In a couple of recent posts (here and here), I have discussed the possibility of Wisconsin reinstituting “good time.”  I have developed the argument for good time at much greater depth in a new article that is now available on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Wisconsin is one of about twenty states not offering good conduct time (GCT) to prisoners. In most states, prisoners are able to earn GCT credits toward accelerated release through good behavior. Wisconsin itself had GCT for more than a century, but eliminated it as part of a set of reforms in the 1980s and 1990s that left the state with what may be the nation’s most inflexible system for the release of prisoners. Although some of these reforms helpfully brought greater certainty to punishment, they went too far in eliminating nearly all meaningful recognition and encouragement of good behavior and rehabilitative progress. This article explains why and how Wisconsin should reinstitute GCT, drawing on social scientific research on the effects of GCT, public opinion surveys in Wisconsin and across the United States regarding sentencing policy, and an analysis of the GCT laws in place in other jurisdictions. Although the article focuses particularly on Wisconsin’s circumstances, the basic argument for GCT is more generally applicable, and much of the analysis should be of interest to policymakers in other states, too.

Entitled “Good Conduct Time for Prisoners: Why (and How) Wisconsin Should Provide Credits Toward Early Release,” the article is forthcoming in the Marquette Law Review.

Why No “Good Time” in Wisconsin?

Unlike most other states, Wisconsin does not recognize prisoners’ good behavior with credits toward accelerated release.  Wisconsin had such a “good time” program for well over a century, but eliminated it as part of the policy changes in the 1980s and 1990s that collectively left the state unusually — perhaps even uniquely — inflexible in its terms of imprisonment.  I’ve been researching the history of good time in Wisconsin in connection with a forthcoming law review article.

Wisconsin adopted its first good time law in 1860, which placed it among the first states to embrace this new device for improving prison discipline.  Twenty years later, in 1880, the Legislature expanded good time and restructured the program in the form it would retain for about a century.  In the first year of imprisonment, an inmate could earn one month’s credit for good behavior; in the second, two months; in the third, three; and so forth.  Credits maxed out at six months per year.   A model prisoner with a ten-year term, for instance, might earn enough credits to knock off two years or more from the time served.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, good time has had a distinct history, structure, and purpose from parole.   Continue reading “Why No “Good Time” in Wisconsin?”

Two-Thirds of Wisconsinites Support More Flexibility for Prisoner Releases

In 1998, Wisconsin adopted what may have been the nation’s most rigid truth-in-sentencing law, eliminating parole across the board and declining to put into place any alternative system of back-end release flexibility, such as credits for good behavior in prison.  Subsequent reforms to this system have been either short-lived or very modest in scope.  However, new results from the Marquette Law School Poll confirm and strengthen findings from other recent surveys that Wisconsin residents would actually welcome a more flexible system.

As I noted in an earlier post, the Law School Poll has asked Wisconsinites their views about criminal-justice policies in each of the past three summers.  Although the Poll has revealed significant support for truth in sentencing, it has also revealed comparable or even greater support for enhanced flexibility.

In 2012, Poll results included the following:  

  • 85% of respondents agreed that “criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”
  • 67% agreed that “Wisconsin should recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments by awarding credits toward early release.”
  • 55% agreed that “once a prisoner has served at least half of his term, he should be released from prison and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.”

Continue reading “Two-Thirds of Wisconsinites Support More Flexibility for Prisoner Releases”