The editorial board of The New York Times has been listening to RAPP and other community representatives. Here is the Times editorial that appeared in the paper on Monday morning, September 29, 2014:
The Opinion Pages | EDITORIAL
Nursing Homes Behind Bars
After declining for three years in a row, the nation’s stubbornly huge prison population has crept back up again. About 1,574,700 people were in prison at the end of 2013, up 4,300 from 2012. (While the federal population actually dropped for the first time in more than 30 years, it was offset by a larger increase in state prisoners.)
There are many ways to get this number back down, and in the process create a smarter, safer and more cost-effective penal system. One of the most long-known and sensible fixes, however, has proved in practice to be one of the hardest to employ: releasing older prisoners.
Thanks largely to harsh and rigid sentencing laws, aging inmates — defined as starting anywhere from 50 to 65, depending on the state — make up the largest and fastest-growing segment of the American prison population. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of inmates older than 55 nearly quadrupled; they are expected to account for a third of all prisoners by 2030.
Letting them out early makes sense for two reasons. First, they are far and away the most expensive inmates to house, costing at least twice as much as younger inmates, $16 billion per year over all. This is because the elderly have more significant medical needs — from broken bodies to failing minds — and because prisons are not designed to be old-age homes.
Just as important, older inmates are by far the least likely to reoffend. While close to half of younger inmates end up back in prison after release, only 7 percent of those older than 50 do, and only 4 percent of those over 65.
So why aren’t more elderly prisoners released? Under a pure cost-benefit analysis, it would seem to be an easy call. But decades-long sentences are not handed out simply to protect the public; they also represent retribution for serious crimes. This is often the biggest hurdle to early release for older inmates, many of whom are in for murder.
It doesn’t matter if the inmate has demonstrated excellent behavior for years; parole boards, which are made up of skittish political appointees who often have only minutes to consider each application, do not want to face the backlash that can come from letting a convicted murderer go free.
For the same reason, governors and presidents who have the unfettered power to grant clemency rarely do so. And while 36 states have enacted “compassionate release” laws, meant to provide a last touch of mercy to inmates with terminal illnesses or other severe medical problems, the laws are rarely used, according to a recent report by the Osborne Association, a prison-reform group.
It is no surprise that a nation addicted to imprisonment is quickly approaching a crisis of elderly inmates. Some states are finding ways to meet the special needs of these prisoners, and in 2013 the Justice Department made it slightly easier for certain inmates to seek compassionate release.
As the United States increasingly comes to terms with the staggering financial and moral costs of mass incarceration, it is time to reconsider whether it is worth keeping hundreds of thousands of people behind bars well into old age.