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Why keeping elderly criminals in prison is a waste of your money

Michael Hodge, 51, sits in his wheelchair during an interview at a federal prison.
Michael Hodge, 51, sits in his wheelchair during an interview at a federal prison.
Nikki Kahn/Washington Post via Getty Images

The Washington Post's Sari Horwitz, in a new investigative piece, exposed the enormous costs and ineffectiveness of keeping elderly people — some of whom can't even walk — in prison for crimes they committed decades ago.

The piece opens with the story of 63-year-old inmate Bruce Harrison, who suffers from multiple crippling medical problems:

Twenty-one years into his nearly 50-year sentence, the graying man steps inside his stark cell in the largest federal prison complex in America. He wears special medical boots because of a foot condition that makes walking feel as if he's "stepping on a needle." He has undergone tests for a suspected heart condition and sometimes experiences vertigo.

"I get dizzy sometimes when I'm walking," says the 63-year-old inmate, Bruce Harrison. "One time, I just couldn't get up."

Harrison, the Post explained, is in prison for 50 years for trafficking marijuana and cocaine — a sentence so long that even the jurors that convicted him wrote letters to the judge and prosecutor saying it was excessive.

But imagine if Harrison were in prison for something much worse, like armed robbery or murder. He is 63 years old. He already has multiple debilitating medical conditions, and will likely suffer from more as he gets older. If he wasn't in prison, it's unlikely he would pose a threat to public safety, since his old age and the medical conditions that come with it would hinder his ability to commit any crime, much less a violent one.

To this point, research suggests that people age out of crime, particularly after their 20s and 30s, so letting them out of prison 10 or 20 years down the line — instead of 40 or 50 years, or never — likely wouldn't pose a threat to public safety.

Criminal justice experts have also made this claim in the past few years as they've looked for ways to reduce America's enormous prison population, which is the largest in the world. "Crime is a young man's endeavor," Brian Elderbroom, senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, previously told me. "It's not surprising that someone who commits a crime at a young age would be a completely different person by the time they're in their 30s."

But prison sentences, the Sentencing Project pointed out, have gotten longer over the past few decades — for example, through the rapid expansion of life sentences. Along with other strict sentences, this has helped fuel a growth in the population of inmates 50 and older, which the Washington Post found is the fastest-growing demographic in federal correctional facilities.

life sentences

(The Sentencing Project)

This is very expensive for taxpayers. According to the Washington Post, the typical cost of a federal prisoner is about $27,500 a year. But this cost is dramatically higher for older inmates who require medical care: nearly $59,000 each year.

The prohibitive cost is why more states, even the conservative Georgia, have worked to reduce their prison populations in the past few years. So far, most states have done this by reforming sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes.

But as this great interactive from the Marshall Project shows, significantly cutting the US's prison population will require a reduction in violent offenders, as well.

It's understandably difficult to imagine giving any mercy to someone who's committed a crime as heinous as murder or some other violent act. But given the high cost of imprisonment and weak public safety justifications for locking up someone who is old and debilitated, it's perhaps not such an unreasonable consideration.

Watch: The racism of the US criminal justice system, in 10 charts

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