When some hated miscreant is convicted for a heinous crime, his angry, contorted, young face snarling out at you from the image in your newspaper, on your screen, it’s so easy to scream that he must be locked up for decades, centuries, until the day he dies, because it’s all so scary and he can’t hurt someone if he’s behind bars. What about the children? What about you?
So the answer has been easy, and one that’s rewarded politicians consistently: increasing the length of imprisonment, punishment, isolation, because, well, who really gives a damn if this person who has demonstrated an unwillingness to live amongst others according to the rules of acceptable behavior ever breathes free air again? It’s a simple solution to a complex problem, but it’s good enough and makes complete sense. Most importantly, you just don’t care enough to risk a headache thinking any more about it. Problem solved.
But years pass, and young men become old men, even older than they would normally age, because prison life isn’t nearly as much fun as you would think. Three years out, there’s a vague recollection of the harm done. Five years, barely a twinkle. Ten, twenty, fifty, they’re mostly forgotten.
If it was a murder, the memories will be stronger, though still faded. If it was drugs, there likely isn’t a person on the planet who gives a damn if they’re in prison. There was no real real pain in the first place, and the only people who suffer are the spouse and children, maybe the parents if they’re still alive. But no one else cares. Yet there they are, finishing up their 30 years for the safety of a society that no longer remembers they exist.
At age 50, broken old men remain in prison. It’s no longer their punishment, but their tomb.
Corrections officials once thought they had time to prepare for this, but something unexpected happened. Federal data shows that prison inmates age more rapidly than people on the outside — because of stress, poor diet and lack of medical care — so much so that their infirmities qualify them as “elderly” at the age of 50.
This problem is overwhelming the state and federal prison systems’ ability to manage it. And unless prisons adopt a common-sense approach of releasing older inmates who present no danger to the public, this costly group could soon account for a full third of the population behind bars.
The cost factor is in there to play to the conservatives, for whom the human cost may mean little but the out-of-pocket costs are crushing. Why piss away good money on prisoners when it could be spent on bombs instead?
Granting early release to sick, elderly inmates with families who want to care for them would be the humane thing to do. But it also makes good policy sense, given that they are far less likely than the young to commit new crimes. For example, a 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union documented that criminal activity drops sharply as people age. In New York, the study found, just 4 percent of prisoners 65 or older return to prison with a new conviction within three years of release; only 7 percent of those who are 50 to 64 do so. In contrast, 16 percent of those 49 or younger return.
We’ve long known that people age out of crime. It’s a young man’s game. We know that viable alternatives to crime help too, but that’s harder to achieve and requires diversion of resources toward helping ex-cons survive. When you’re struggling to put dinner on the table yourself, you don’t give a damn about whether an ex-drug dealer has food.
To state the obvious, our fetish with ever-longer sentences as a palliative was bone-headed, but we just couldn’t help ourselves. When the threat of guns and drugs was scaring the crap out of America, Congress added “use and carry” enhancements, beloved of prosecutors as 18 U.S.C. 924(c), to stack a decade on the back end of other crimes.
The theory was easily digested, carry a gun and get at least another five, if not 30, years. That will teach ’em not to carry guns. Except it didn’t. They carried guns because the other guy might carry a gun, and better to be judged by 12 than carried by six. The law didn’t change behavior, because the theory was directed toward people who wouldn’t commit the crime in the first place. But if you were inclined to sell drugs, the threat of the extra decade wasn’t a good enough reason to die.
Prisons, of course, cannot release people based solely on age. But the states and federal government can expand medical parole programs under which far too few terminally ill and physically disabled people are now released. In addition, parole boards across the country can screen older inmates for release using widely accepted measures to determine whether or not the inmate poses a risk.
The president can commute sentences, can pardon people for crimes that were once dreaded but now don’t bother people very much. But that’s not happening.* The parole board? The same parole board that wields power mercilessly, corruptly, is now going to save us? It is unproductive to pretend to solve one problem by pretending another doesn’t exist.
The best answer for the future is for state legislatures to keep moving away from the disproportionately harsh sentencing laws that brought us to this point in the first place.
Going forward, obviously, though there will be the next scare, as there always has been, which will give rise to shrieks for ever more draconian penalties for the most hated crime du jour. But this does nothing to address the extant problem, that our prisons are filled with unhealthy old men who wouldn’t commit crimes even if they could get away with it.
The problem is that we have an amazing ability to create untenable situations that defy simplistic solutions, but nobody wants to pay attention at the time it’s happening. There is a solution to the use of prisons as waiting rooms for the aged to meet their makers. For crimes shy of murder, commute all sentences over 25 years. By then, you’ve made your point, and there’s nothing more to be gained by holding old men in custody.
It’s a rough solution, and there will be people looking for crime anecdotes to stir outrage and they will find them. But there is no other way than to take up a bludgeon to beat back the excesses of the bludgeon that filled the prisons in the first place. And the secret no one will ever tell you is that there was never any magic as to why a ridiculously lengthy sentence was right and another, less ridiculously lengthy, sentence was wrong in the first place.
There is no possibility that a surgical approach will work. It would be nice, perhaps, but there are far too many inmates, far too much information, for it to be viable. We made a horrible mistake over the years imposing absurdly long sentences. We’re paying for it now. So are the old men in prison. They’ve paid their dues, with interest. And outside of a handful of people, no one remembers why they’re there anyway.
*President Obama has, as of this date, granted conditional commutations to 1,176 and pardoned 148 prisoners. Regardless of how that stacks up to other presidents, it’s a drop in the bucket.