Thursday, February 02, 2012

Aging Prison Populations

There were articles on the University of Pittsburgh’s Jurist and, more specifically here in Ohio in The Columbus Dispatch, earlier this week about the Human Rights Watch’s concern “over aging men and women becoming the most rapidly growing group in US prisons and the ability of officials to provide appropriate housing and medical care to these individuals.” ( Human Rights Watch press release )

HRW released a report last month -- the first of two that Human Rights Watch plans to issue on the topic of elderly prisoners in the US. -- presenting new data on the number of aging men and women in prison, information on the cost of confining them; and based on research conducted in nine states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington ) where prisons vary significantly in size, resources, and conditions, offers an overview of some ways that prison systems have responded to them. ( See "Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States")

The report details that the “states vary considerably in the relative size of their population of older inmates. Among states reporting year-end prison population data to the National Corrections Reporting Program, the proportion of prisoners age 55 years or over ranged from 4.2 percent to 9.9 percent, with the highest proportions found in Oregon (9.9 percent), 2 percentage points above the second highest rate (7.9 percent in Pennsylvania). The lowest rate (4.2 percent) was found in Connecticut, followed by North Dakota (5.0 percent).

In Ohio, inmates age 50 or over grew from 9.5 percent of the total prison population in 2001 to 14.5 percent in 2010 -- increasing by 126.2 percent in the four years between 1997 and 2010 alone. JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, was quoted by the Dispatch as reporting that Ohio is no exception to the trend, with the state’s institutions now having 6,847 inmates 50 or older -- the oldest being 90 years old.

Among HRW’s recommendations to state & federal officials were reviewing sentencing and release policies to determine which could be modified to reduce the growing population of older prisoners without risking public safety; developing comprehensive plans for housing, medical care, and programs for the current and projected populations of older prisoners; and modifying prison rules that impose unnecessary hardship on older inmates.

Ohio HB 86 (analysis) passed last June and becoming effective at the end of September, contained provisions for the Department of Corrections to “review the cases of all parole-eligible inmates who are 65 or older and who have had a statutory first parole consideration hearing, and report the findings of its review to the Senate & House of Representatives as to why each of those inmates has not been paroled or otherwise released from custody; and then to have the Chair of the Ohio Parole Board present to the Board the cases of those offenders described, authorizing it to then rehear the offender's case for possible release on parole.”

Prelude to HB 86 was the Ohio Sentencing Commission’s 2011monitoring report, “Prison Crowding: The Long View, with Suggestions.”

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