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Should We Release Older Inmates? Aging Offenders and Recidivism
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 06/25/2018

Geriatrics inmate

The debate regarding the size of the prison population is ongoing with the observation that the United States has the world’s largest rate of incarceration. Regardless as to your perspective of the worthiness of incarceration, every governor in the country has expressed a desire (demand?) to rein in the cost of corrections.

There are a variety of initiatives to lessen the impact of incarceration. Starting with Texas in 2007, more than 30 states have adopted sentencing and corrections reforms.

The overall correctional population dropped by 726,000 since the peak year of 2007. There were 111,000 fewer people in prison since the peak year of 2009. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of the correctional population are supervised in the community, Crime in America.

No one knows if the declines are the result of criminal justice reform or simply less crime. The United States has seen an almost continuous decline in crime over the last twenty years except for recent years, Crime in America.

Recidivism is massive. The 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 had an estimated 1,994,000 arrests during the 9-year period, an average of 5 arrests per released prisoner. Five out of six released offenders were rearrested, Crime in America.

So what’s a governor to do?

Release Older Offenders

Per the data below, older offenders are rearrested at “much” lower rates than younger offenders. Is it time to consider the release of older offenders?

Doing the crime and serving the time is expected. If a sex offender attacks a child at the age of 50, he should do the time. Accountability to the victim and society is imperative.

But for younger offenders (at the time of the crime) now approaching their older years, it may be possible to take a hard look at who’s in prison and the odds of them committing new crimes if released.

Yes, it all depends on the severity of the crime and criminal history. For offenders in the federal Criminal History Category VI, (the most serious category) the rearrest rate ranged from 89.7 percent for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 37.7 percent for offenders age 60 or older.

A near 40 percent rearrest rate for those 60 and above is astounding and proves that age unto itself is not an indicator of a “safe” release.

But the justice system simply can’t be all things to all people and governors are screaming bloody hell that they need money for more pressing concerns. Corrections remains a crowded mess thus releasing offenders less likely to commit harm does have merit; there are substantial medical costs that come with ageing.

Yes, this is a federal report and state correction systems are vastly different; 54 percent of state inmates are currently serving time for a violent offense (many more have a history of violence), and the number of violent offenders in the federal prison system is much smaller (less than 20 percent), but the overall lessons are the same.

Is it time to consider the release of older inmates considered to be an acceptable risk to public safety?

US Sentencing Commission Report (rearranged for readability)

The Effects of Aging on Recidivism Among Federal Offenders is the fourth report in a series examining a group of 25,431 federal offenders who were released from prison or placed on probation in calendar year 2005. This report analyzes the impact of the aging process on federal offender recidivism and, once age is accounted for, the impact of other offense and offender characteristics.

The Commission found that older offenders are substantially less likely to recidivate following release compared to younger cohorts. Among offenders released younger than age 21, 67.6 percent were rearrested compared to 13.4 percent of those released age 65 or older.

The pattern is consistent across age groups, as age increases recidivism by any measure declined. Older offenders who do recidivate do so later in the follow-up period, do so less frequently, and had less serious recidivism offenses on average.

The Commission found that age is not the only factor associated with recidivism. After accounting for age, criminal history as measured by the offenders’ Criminal History Category was closely correlated with recidivism rates. Demographic factors including gender (males had higher rates), race and ethnicity (minorities had higher rates), and education levels (those with lower education levels had higher rates) also stood out.

Other factors found to be associated with recidivism rates after accounting for age include sentence length for offenders less than age 50: the shortest lengths are associated with less recidivism up to sentences of one year, beyond which recidivism rates level off.

Some offense characteristics, in particular primary federal offense (firearms and robbery, for example) and weapon enhancement, are associated with higher recidivism rates.

Key Findings

The key findings of the Commission’s study of federal offenders’ recidivism by age at release are that:

Older offenders were substantially less likely than younger offenders to recidivate following release. Over an eight-year follow-up period, 13.4 percent of offenders age 65 or older at the time of release were rearrested compared to 67.6 percent of offenders younger than age 21 at the time of release. The pattern was consistent across age groupings, and recidivism measured by rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration declined as age increased.

For federal offenders under age 30 at the time of release, over one-fourth (26.6%) who recidivated had assault as their most common new charge. By comparison, for offenders 60 years old or older at the time of release, almost one quarter (23.7%) who recidivated had a public order offense as their most serious new charge.

Age and criminal history exerted a strong influence on recidivism. For offenders in Criminal History Category I, the rearrest rate ranged from 53.0 percent for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 11.3 percent for offenders age 60 or older. For offenders in Criminal History Category VI, the rearrest rate ranged from 89.7 percent for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 37.7 percent for offenders age 60 or older.

Education level influenced recidivism across almost all categories. For example, among offenders under age 30 at the time of release, college graduates had a substantially lower rearrest rate (27.0%) than offenders who did not complete high school (74.4%). Similarly, among offenders age 60 or older at the time of release, college graduates had a somewhat lower rearrest rate (11.6%) than offenders who did not complete high school (17.2%).

Age exerted a strong influence on recidivism across all sentence length categories. Older offenders were less likely to recidivate after release than younger offenders who had served similar sentences, regardless of the length of sentence imposed.

In addition, for younger offenders there was some association between the length of the original federal sentence and the rearrest rates, as younger offenders with sentences of up to six months generally had lower rearrest rates than younger offenders with longer sentences. However, among all offenders sentenced to one year or more of imprisonment, there was no clear association between the length of sentence and the rearrest rate.

For certain major offense types, the type of federal offense that offenders had committed also had an effect on recidivism across age groups. For example, firearms offenders had a substantially higher rearrest rate across all age categories than drug trafficking offenders, who in turn had a higher rearrest rate across all age categories than fraud offenders.

For example, for offenders under age 30 at the time of release, the rearrest rates were 79.3 percent (firearms), 62.5 percent (drug trafficking), and 53.6 percent (fraud).

Similarly, for offenders age 60 and older at the time of release, the rearrest rates were 30.2 percent (firearms), 17.5 percent (drug trafficking), and 12.5 percent (fraud).

At every age group, federal prisoners had a substantially lower recidivism rate than state prisoners who also were released in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. For example, for offenders age 24 or younger at the time of release, 63.2 percent of federal prisoners were rearrested within five years compared to over four-fifths (84.1%) of state prisoners.

Like federal prisoners, older state prisoners were less likely to recidivate than younger state prisoners.

Full Report.

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