By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel, and Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director, at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Gupta directs the ACLU’s Center for Justice and its Safe and Fair Initiative to End Overincarceration. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel coordinating the Initiative, and is incoming Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
Elderly prisoners are the least dangerous group of people behind bars but the most expensive to incarcerate. Yet despite this truth, the number of elderly prisoners is skyrocketing. Harsher sentencesfor less serious crimes – one defining characteristic of our failed “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies – are responsible for this staggering increase in the number of older prisoners, and taxpayers are taking the hit.
You may be shocked to learn how much money states are dumping into housing aging prisoners who pose little safety risk. Today the American Civil Liberties Union released a report, “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,” which details the growth of our aging prisoner population, the low public safety threat elderly prisoners pose and the fiscal impact of incarcerating them. Strikingly, the report estimates that the average aging prisoner costs taxpayers about twice as much as the average prisoner.
The report is co-authored by the ACLU’s fiscal policy analyst and in-house economist, Will Bunting. He conducted a fiscal impact analysis, weighing the cost of incarcerating the average aging prisoner against the burden releasing that same prisoner would impose on public benefit programs. Even taking into consideration the cost of state payments for Medicaid, supplemental security food stamps, energy assistance, and other public assistance benefits, the report estimates that states could save $66,000 per year for each aging person released from prison. To put this number in context, the average American household makes $40,000. The money thus saved could be redistributed to more worthwhile and cost-effective state goals like education and infrastructure.
A look at the grander scheme of things is even more startling: in 1988, the United States spent about $11 billion on the entire corrections system. Today, we spend about $16 billion annually on the aging prisoner population alone.