Advocates for criminal justice reform continue to call for a restoration of fairness and proportionality in the criminal justice system, including sentencing. The question of whether the system’s objective is to punish or to rehabilitate people remains even after President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 and President Trump signed the First Step Act in 2018.
When restoring fairness, ageing must be a determining factor. Let me explain. The median age in the United States was 37.2 in 2010. The median age climbed to 38.1 in 2018. As the general population ages, so does the prison population.
As the cost for caring for an aging population generally increases, so does the cost of caring for an aging population in prison. And, that care can be costly. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, in states where older inmates represent a relatively large share of the population, there is a tendency to incur higher per inmate health care spending.
It costs the taxpayer about $46,000 per year to incarcerate a person. The average cost of geriatric care in prison ads an additional $5,500 per year. To care for those aged 50 to 59, however, doubles to about $11,000 per year, and it goes up nearly eightfold for prisoners aged 80 and over to $40,000 per year.
However, data shows that older prisoners, when the system releases them, are not likely to commit additional crimes. The relationship between a prisoner’s age and recidivism, or the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend, reflects what criminologist call the “aging-out” phenomenon. Studies show that rate in which released former prisoners return to correctional custody lower around age 40 and continue to fall as they approach age 80 and older.
A 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals helped prove this point in the landmark court case, Unger v. Maryland. The ruling resulted in the release of 193 “lifers” or those who the courts had sentenced to life in prison, like me. To date, only five people, less than three percent, have violated their probation. Maryland’s overall recidivism rate is 40 percent.
The question remains, what is appropriate punishment? The answer is personal for me. Parole Commissioners remarked at my recent hearing that I could be rehabilitated, have availed myself to every educational and vocational training opportunity available to me, and have remained infraction free for 28 years.