The New Jersey Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission issued a report in March urging policymakers to create "rehabilitative release" to free older incarcerated people, who are unlikely to reoffend and whose care can be costly. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Ron Pierce was 57 when he was released from prison in 2016 after 30 years. That’s still fairly young by societal standards, given the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 76.
But by correctional standards, that’s geriatric. And Pierce sure felt geriatric many days, especially after he had a heart attack at 48 and another a few years later.
“They had to constantly have me in medical on a regular basis,” Pierce said of his final decade behind bars. “And the cost of medical skyrockets the older you get.”
As New Jersey’s incarcerated population grays, with more than one in five people in state prisons older than 50, the cost of their care has soared. At the same time, people are less likely to commit new crimes the older they get, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Such trends prompted the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission recently to urge policymakers to create a “rehabilitative release” program that would allow incarcerated people to petition a judge for resentencing after they reach age 60 and have served at least 20 years of their sentence.
“Geriatric parole” is something several Democratic lawmakers have pushed for since 2019, when they first introduced legislation that would give older incarcerated people a path out of prison. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) and Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) introduced a bill again last year.
“When people get to a certain age, they’re not going to be out committing crimes,” Reynolds-Jackson said. “This is about compassion. This is about humanity.”
It’s also about cost
In New Jersey’s state prisons, where the population has plummeted in recent years because of criminal justice reforms and pandemic releases, people 60 and older are the only demographic that’s growing, said Amy Z. Quinn, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.
The oldest person in state custody in New Jersey is a 90-year-old man at South Woods State Prison, and at the state’s only women’s prison, the oldest resident is 78, Quinn said. The system’s current median age — 37 — has climbed by two years since 2018, she added. People age 50 and older now comprise 22% of the state’s incarcerated population, up from 13% a decade ago, state data shows.
While every older incarcerated person isn’t infirm, studies show that the stress of incarceration speeds up aging, contributing to the climbing cost of health care behind bars. More and more incarcerated people have chronic diseases that typically are age-related, like cardiovascular disease, arthritis, obesity, and asthma, Quinn said.
The system isn’t equipped to handle complex care, which means more incarcerated people get sent to hospitals and other long-term acute care facilities for specialized care and rehabilitation, she said.
It costs the state about $2 million a year per person for such placement — plus about $304,000 in overtime for the correctional officers mandated to guard that patient, according to state budget documents.
Corrections officials expect such care will cost the department an extra $5 million in the coming year, Quinn said. About seven to 10 incarcerated people reside in long-term acute care facilities in any given month, and they typically stay about 25 days, she said.
New Jersey has had a compassionate release law since February 2021 for ill incarcerated people, but they must have a terminal medical diagnosis or be permanently physically incapacitated to be considered for release.
And Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Earn Your Way Out Act into law in 2020, a measure meant to speed up the parole process for nonviolent offenders.
A rehabilitative release policy based on age would target more of those folks who are unlikely to reoffend, giving them an incentive to learn a trade, seek education, and otherwise use their time in custody productively in preparation for post-prison life, the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission said in a March report.
Up to 300 incarcerated people would be eligible for rehabilitative release if it existed under parameters the commission recommends, according to the report. That’s about 3% of the nearly 10,000 adults now in state prisons.
Those parameters would set a higher bar for release for people convicted of murder and require incarcerated people to have shown “significant rehabilitation” in order to qualify for release. Anyone applying for rehabilitative release would receive a lawyer to represent them in court, and the victim or victim’s family would be given an opportunity to respond.
Legislation that would have created such a route for release has been introduced three times since 2019. It passed the full Assembly in July 2020 but never got a Senate companion bill. It has been stalled this session in the Assembly’s law committee since Schaer and Reynolds-Jackson introduced it in January 2022 and still has no Senate version.
Pierce now works as a policy analyst for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. To him, geriatric parole is a good answer to a growing problem.
“I get the other side, where they might say: ‘Well, he hasn’t fully paid his debt to society.’ But I don’t see an exact number as being the key to repaying your debt to society,” Pierce said. “The reality is it’s costing a lot more money to keep people in prison who are no longer a risk to society. A law like this will save a lot of money and will not decrease public safety.”
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