Human Rights Watch released a report last week, Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States, that details a new challenge created by the extreme sentences dished out over the past generation. According to the report, in 2010 there were 124,400 prisoners—8 percent of inmates—aged 55 or older, which is an increase of 57.3 percent from 2009. This is due to the number of inmates serving life sentences and the many others serving sentences of 20 years or longer. Roughly half of people who get life sentences are black, according to the Sentencing Project.
The report pointed out that about one in 10 state prisoners is serving a life sentence and 11 percent have sentences longer than 20 years. Some sentencing reform advocates have warned that, as the case against the death penalty builds steam, it’s crucial that lawmakers and advocates alike keep in mind the core problem: a sentencing system that empowers prosecutors and limits judicial discretion, leading to widespread extreme sentences.
Prisons aren’t equipped to properly care for the geriatric prisoners who fall ill and need daily living assistance. In 2007, 46 percent of inmates aged 55 and over died in state prison. As Jamie Fellner, the author of the report, told the New York Times, “Age should not be a get-out-of-jail-free card, but when prisoners are so old and infirm that they are not a threat to public safety, they should be released under supervision. Failing that, legislatures are going to have to pony up a lot more money to pay for proper care for them behind bars.”
* This story has been updated since publication.