Though New York’s prison population has been on the decline, the state comptroller is urging policymakers to continue reducing that number and to be aware that a growing percentage of older inmates is leading to substantially higher health care costs.
And a group advocating for the release of older people said that decades of “extreme sentencing” and racial bias in parole determinations means that minorities are more likely to “continue to age without dignity, get sick, and die in prison regardless of their transformation and potential benefits to the outside community.”
A report released Thursday from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office says that the state’s prison population declined by half from March 2008 to March 2021, but the population of individuals aged 50 and above grew slightly while no age segment under the age of 50 showed an increase.
The number of older incarcerated individuals has grown from 7,511 in March 2008 to 7,586 in March 2021. As a percentage of the state’s shrinking prison population, however, the older population has doubled.
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DiNapoli said that about 24% of the state’s 31,262 prisoners were 50 and older in March 2021. Thirteen years earlier, that number had been 12%, when thew prison population totaled 62,597.
The report indicates that at least two trends may explain the net gain in older prisoners: one is the rise in the number of admissions of older people to Department of Corrections and Community Supervision prisons for a new offense or parole violation, which increased by an average of 3.5% per year from 2008 to 2020.
“The average age of incarcerated individuals under custody in New York state prisons was 40.3 years in March 2021, an increase of 4.1 years, or 11.4%, since March 2008. The number and the percentage of older individuals released from prisons to parole supervision under DOCCS jurisdiction also rose,” the report said.
In addition, Raise the Age legislation enacted in 2017 and fully implemented in 2020 removed anyone under the age of 18 from DOCCS prisons to facilities operated by the state Office of Children and Family Services.
Overall health care costs for the state prison system have averaged about $350 million per year since 2012-13, the report says, peaking at just under $400 million in 2016-17. Costs have trended significantly lower since, likely due in part to declines in the state prison population. Over the same period, health care costs for each incarcerated individual have averaged about $7,380 per year, 29% higher in 2020-21 than they were eight years earlier. DOCCS pays almost all the health care costs of incarcerated individuals in state prisons.
DiNapoli said that while DOCCS has acknowledged the potential of higher medical costs in testimony to the state Legislature, it has not provided specific information about those costs. DiNapoli said DOCCS should take the necessary steps to collect and share this information with policymakers to allow for more informed choices about the best way to address this challenge.
“The safe and efficient operation of the corrections system is critically important to protecting public safety, providing incarcerated individuals with opportunities to find success upon release and ensuring wise use of public resources,” DiNapoli said. “In the months ahead, policymakers should examine opportunities to reduce the population of incarcerated individuals 50 and over where public safety would not be compromised.”
Release Aging People in Prison said Thursday that the state should pass parole reform legislation “to ensure that people in prison have meaningful opportunities for individualized consideration for parole release based on who they are today, what they have done to change, and whether they pose a risk if released.”
RAPP said that 55% of the roughly 31,000 people currently incarcerated in New York state prisons are Black, despite the fact that only 18% of the overall population in the state is Black.
“Even while the overall prison population decreases, the incarceration of older adults continues to increase, robbing communities across New York state of elders who can be safely released, mentor young people, interrupt violence, provide peer counseling to people with substance use disorder, and promote safety,” Jose Saldana, director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said in a statement. “We continue our calls for the New York State legislature to pass the Elder Parole and the Fair & Timely Parole bills and for Governor Hochul to grant clemency to effectively address this crisis.”