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.

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”

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”

Juvenile Court or Adult? New Research on the Consequences of the Decision

Juvenile courts were invented at the end of the nineteenth century and spread rapidly across the U.S. Proponents argued that juvenile offenders were more readily rehabilitated than adults, and should be handled through a different court system that focused on treatment and spared offenders the permanent stigma of a criminal conviction. By the 1990s, though, attitudes toward juvenile offenders had grown more pessimistic and punitive. Although juvenile courts were not eliminated, most states adopted reforms that either reduced the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction or facilitated the transfer of some juveniles to adult court.

More recently, the pendulum of public opinion has begun to swing back in favor of juvenile courts. Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have all expanded the jurisdiction of their juvenile courts. There has also been a push in Wisconsin to raise the age of majority and keep some seventeen-year olds in juvenile court. A few states are even considering raising the age of majority to twenty-one.

Two intriguing new articles explore some of the social consequences of channeling more young offenders into juvenile court.   Continue reading “Juvenile Court or Adult? New Research on the Consequences of the Decision”

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.

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.

Obama Clemency Grants Pick Up Steam

Somewhat lost in the run-up to Labor Day weekend and wall-to-wall media coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal prisoners on August 30. This builds on what has quietly become one of Obama’s most significant end-of-term domestic policy initiatives. He has now commuted 673 sentences, more than the previous ten presidents combined.

Commutation (that is, a reduction in the severity of a criminal sentence) is a form of executive clemency. The Constitution expressly grants clemency powers, and presidents since George Washington have used these powers in a variety of different ways. In recent decades, though, there has been a certain whiff of disrepute surrounding clemency. Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich and George W. Bush’s commutation of the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, among other scandals, contributed to a perception that clemency was unfairly used to benefit wealthy, powerful defendants.

Despite these negative perceptions of clemency, the Obama Administration announced in 2014 that it would welcome commutation applications from certain nonviolent federal offenders. In particular, the initiative focuses on offenders who were convicted many years ago of crimes that would result in a shorter sentence today. Federal sentencing law has undergone several important changes in the past decade, especially in relation to the sentencing of crack cocaine offenses. Federal crack sentences were notoriously severe for many years, with greatly disproportionate effects on black defendants. As a result of the recent changes, thousands of federal prisoners are now serving terms that would be shorter if they were imposed for the same offenses today.

In comparison to the secretive, ad hoc decisionmaking of previous presidents, President Obama’s initiative represents an admirably transparent, principled approach to clemency.  Continue reading “Obama Clemency Grants Pick Up Steam”

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”

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.