Ronald Day, Associate Vice President at The Fortune Society

Mass Incarceration & Aging In Prison: A Stain On The Archives Of American History

Saturday, June 27, 2015

[This article is reprinted from the May issue of FORTUNE NEWS which focuses on “Aging And The Criminal Justice System.”]

When it comes to incarceration in this country, many of our elected officials have been driving policy while under the influence. The influence has been negative perceptions, stereotypes, “moral panics,” and a belief that people are incorrigible.

Hence, we can simply lock them up and throw away the key. The truth is that 95% of people are eventually released from prison.

One of the consequences of a retributive system is that thousands upon thousands of people languish in prison for decades, well beyond the point of them posing much risk to public safety. A report by the Osborne Association found that “there are an estimated 246,600 prisoners age 50 or older in the United States and nearly 9,300 aging incarcerated individuals in New York, comprising roughly 17% of the state’s total prison population.”

According to eminent criminologist Michael Tonry, it took only a dozen years — from 1984 to 1996 — for us to legislate our way into this conundrum. During that brief period, we enacted some of the harshest sentencing laws imaginable. These include Truth in Sentencing, Three Strikes, mandatory minimums, and Life Without Parole. Coupled with a precipitous drop in the number of people released to parole supervision, the results have been disastrous. Justice Anthony Kennedy once noted, “I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences. In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust.”

Although many people probably assume that such harsh sentences are only meted out for the “worst of the worst,” the reality is a bit more complicated. A sizable portion of the people serving hefty sentences committed their crimes as juveniles or young adults.

Take the case of Eraina Pretty, who was recently featured on 20/20. Ms. Pretty revealed to Diane Sawyer that she was convicted at the age of 18 for a double homicide that occurred during a botched robbery. Her boyfriend killed the victims but she has been held as culpable. With tears in her eyes, she spoke about being so consumed with guilt that she once asked the governor to execute her. She has been in prison for 36 years and denied parole numerous times.

————————————————————————–
Justice Anthony Kennedy once noted,
“I can accept neither the necessity nor the
wisdom of federal mandatory minimum
sentences. In too many cases, mandatory
minimum sentences are unwise and unjust.”

————————————————————————–

Rolling Stone did a piece on California’s Three Strikes Laws in 2013. The cases that were described would likely shock the conscience of any sensible person.

“Have you heard the one about the guy who got life for stealing a slice of pizza?” read the article. “Or the guy who went away forever for lifting a pair of baby shoes?”

Regardless of the crime, Mr. Tonry notes that, comparatively, the United States is out of touch when it comes to sentencing. He insists that, “sentences longer than one year are uncommon” in most other Western countries.”

There are considerable costs to society for this experiment in punitive sentencing. The Osborne Association observed that we “currently spend over $16 billion annually on incarceration for individuals aged 50 and older.” The longer one serves in prison, the more disconnected they are from society. They often find it exceedingly difficult to reestablish themselves once released, to secure suitable employment and housing that meets their needs. Lengthy sentences all but guarantee that many of these individuals will be dependent on government assistance.

Attorney General Eric Holder correctly asserted that “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.”

Mass incarceration and its intended consequence — aging in prison — will be a stain on the archives of American history. It was a political imperative that got us into this mess, but a moral imperative is what will get us out of it. Many people are concerned about the exorbitant costs of incarceration, and justifiably so. But our perceptions of “criminals” as disposable is the real sin. We built prisons with impunity and stocked them with bodies, without due consideration to the long-term effects to individuals and communities.

It’s time to change course, to adopt policies that are both fair and just.

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