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.

Continue reading “Violent Crime Versus Property Crime: Marquette Law School Poll Reveals Differences in Public Attitudes”

Chicago, New York Heading in Opposite Directions on Crime; Where Does Milwaukee Stand?

To judge by some of the political rhetoric last fall, violent crime must be surging in our nation’s cities. Is that true? The answer may depend on which city you are talking about, and which neighborhood within that city.

Consider the contrast between Chicago and New York. The Windy City had about 762 homicides in 2016, while the Big Apple had just 334. The difference is shocking, especially when you consider that New York has three times Chicago’s population.

To some extent, the contrasting figures from 2016 reflect longstanding trends. Although murders did spike in Chicago last year, New York has been doing better than Chicago on this score for a long time. The two cities had essentially identical per capita homicide rates in the late 1980s, but New York’s fell much faster and further than Chicago’s in the 1990s. New York has maintained a wide advantage ever since.

Still, the dramatic widening of that advantage in 2016 should be of great concern to Chicagoans. The chart below indicates the trends in recent years, based on FBI data. Note that the two cities moved in sync from 2013 through 2015: homicides down the first year, basically unchanged the next, and then up a little in 2015. However, in 2016, even as Chicago’s homicides shot up, New York’s dropped back down to where they had been in 2013 and 2014.

One should not get the sense, however, that one faces a dramatically elevated risk of violence throughout the Windy City.  Continue reading “Chicago, New York Heading in Opposite Directions on Crime; Where Does Milwaukee Stand?”

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.

Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization in Law School Poll, But Results for Other Drugs Harder to Interpret

In the Marquette Law School Poll conducted earlier this month, fifty-nine percent of registered Wisconsin voters agreed that marijuana “should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol.” Only thirty-nine percent disagreed.

Support for legalization in Wisconsin follows the recent decisions to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012, and in Oregon and Alaska in 2014. Nationally, support for legalization has grown steadily since the early 1990s and finally crossed the fifty-percent threshold in 2013.

In the Law School Poll, respondents were asked which arguments for legalization they found most convincing.

Continue reading “Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization in Law School Poll, But Results for Other Drugs Harder to Interpret”

Deadly Force in Philly (and Milwaukee)

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a voluminous report on uses of deadly force by the Philadelphia Police Department.  In recent years, there has been a drop in both violent crime and assaults on police officers in the City of Brotherly Love, but officer-involved shootings (OISs) have remained stubbornly high.  Amidst media coverage of rising OIS numbers in 2013, the Police Department requested assistance from the DOJ in order to assess the problem.

The new report, authored by George Fachner and Steven Carter, finds there were 394 OISs in Philadelphia between 2007 and 2014, for an average of 49 per year.  The suspects were unarmed in 15% of the cases.  Fachner and Carter provide a wealth of data regarding the 394 OISs and dozens of recommendations for the Department.

One recommendation is, “The PPD should publish a detailed report on use of force, including deadly force, on an annual basis.  The report should be released to the public.”

I’m pleased to say that we are already doing such annual reports here in Milwaukee.  How do the numbers compare?

Continue reading “Deadly Force in Philly (and Milwaukee)”

Mercenary Justice?

Earlier this week, the United States Department of Justice released a scathing report on police and court practices in Ferguson, Missouri.  Figuring prominently in the DOJ’s criticisms, Ferguson criminal-justice officials were said to be overly concerned with extracting money from defendants.  For instance, the DOJ charges:

Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court. The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements. The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety. (3)

I don’t know how fair these particular criticisms are, but they echo numerous other criticisms made in recent years about the increasing tendency of the American criminal-justice system to rely financially on a burgeoning array of fines, surcharges, fees, forfeitures, and the like.

Professors Wayne Logan and Ron Wright have a fine recent article on this subject, appropriately entitled “Mercenary Criminal Justice” (2014 Ill. L. Rev. 1175).   Continue reading “Mercenary Justice?”

Milwaukee Arrests Rarely Involve Force, But Incidents Are Concentrated in Some Districts

Last week, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission released its annual report on police uses of force for 2013.  The report counts 895 incidents in 2013, employing a very broad definition of “use of force” that does not require either an injury or the use of a weapon.  To put that number into perspective, the Milwaukee Police Department made more than 30,000 arrests in 2013.  For each arrest in which force was used, there were about thirty-six arrests in which force was not used.

In nearly three-quarters of the use-of-force-incidents, no weapon was used by the police officer.  In the remaining incidents, the most commonly used weapons were Tasers and pepper spray.  Firearms were used on forty occasions, most commonly on dogs.  Firearms were used against human subjects in fourteen incidents; eleven of the subjects were hit.

Data from previous years indicate that Taser and pepper spray use is in sharp decline.   Continue reading “Milwaukee Arrests Rarely Involve Force, But Incidents Are Concentrated in Some Districts”

Milwaukee Residents Give Solid Marks to Police

Last week, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission (of which I am a member) released the results of its first-ever survey of citizen attitudes toward the police.  Although the survey identified a few areas of concern, the overall tenor of citizen attitudes seems positive.

Conducted for the FPC by UWM’s Center for Urban Initiatives & Research last summer, the survey involved telephone interviews of 1,452 Milwaukee residents.  As detailed in the CUIR’s report, the survey respondents were reflective of the city’s diversity in racial composition and in other respects.

The report’s lead finding is that about three-quarters of Milwaukee residents report that they are at least somewhat satisfied with the Milwaukee Police Department, while only about nine percent said they were “not at all satisfied.”  These findings are notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that fully one-quarter of the respondents reported being stopped by the police in the past year.  One might suppose that this group would be predisposed to negative evaluations of the police.  However, the vast majority (71%) of those stopped felt that they were treated fairly.  The MPD has significantly increased its number of stops in recent years, but it does not appear that involuntary contact with the police normally leads to hard feelings by the person stopped.

Given recent racial tensions in Milwaukee and nationally regarding policing practices, it is especially important to note the racial patterns in survey responses.   Continue reading “Milwaukee Residents Give Solid Marks to Police”

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”