Older population in Alabama prisons doubled over decade, according to report
A prison corridor in Holman Correctional Facility in 2019. (File)
The number of older people in Alabama’s prisons more than doubled in a little over a decade, according to a policy brief published last week by the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group.
The Institute, using numbers from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, reported that 15% of the people under Corrections’ jurisdiction, about 4,300 people, were 55 years old or older in 2019. In 2007, it was slightly more than 2,000 people, or 7% of the total population incarcerated at that time.
The report, which looked at aging in prisons throughout the nation, said the growing number of older inmates was shortening lives and adding expenses to prison budgets to incarcerate a group of people unlikely to reoffend.
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Local criminal justice reform advocates agreed.
“We embrace these long sentences, life and life without parole, but it literally means people are stuck in prison forever,” said Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Unless we have some sort of change in laws, second chance laws, or we fix parole, we are going to have to be prepared to pour billions of tax dollars into locking up all of these old people.”
The Alabama Department of Corrections said in response to questions that 18.4% of its population was aged 51 to 60 as of March 31. 11.7% of its population was 61 or older. DOC did not provide further comment.
Concerns regarding aging prison populations are not new. The American Civil Liberties Union authored a report in 2012 raising concerns about the aging population.
And the other states are seeing prison populations get grayer. According to state statistics in the Prison Policy Initiative report, the older prison population in Louisiana grew from 4% in 2002 to 15% in 2019. Mississippi’s grew from 3% in 2000 to 12% in 2019.
The Prison Policy Initiative said in its report that the aging was driven by harsher sentences and law enforcement targeting populations that are also getting older, including those without housing and those arrested for drug offenses.
The number of unhoused people who are at least 50 years old increased by 20% between 2007 and 2014, and that group accounts for about 30% of those who are homeless, according to the Prison Policy Initiative policy brief.
The number of arrests of people over 50 for drug offenses doubled between 2000 and 2018, according to the report.
The report also said longer sentences for repeat offenses mandatory minimum sentences, reduced good time incentives and reduced parole are playing a role.
The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has sharply curtailed parole in recent years. The Alabama Legislature has also become more interested in harsher sentences. Last spring, the body approved SB 1, sponsored by Sen. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, reducing the amount of credit that inmates could receive for not committing any violations while incarcerated. The Legislature also passed SB 143, sponsored by Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, that established harsher felony penalties for criminal activities already considered felonies.
An Alabama Appleseed report in 2022 estimated that in 2008, almost 4,000 individuals housed within the Alabama Department of Corrections were at least 51 years old, leading to $85 million in medical costs. In 2021, there were about 6,400 people who were 51 years old or older, totaling about $185 million in medical-related expenses.
Some bills that might have addressed the situation did not move far in the most recent regular session of the Legislature.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, introduced two bills for the 2023 regular session meant to stem the issue of the aging prison population. One bill would have set conditions for the parole board to follow when it came to the elderly and those with serious, chronic medical conditions. Another would have allowed 300 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes that did not result in a physical injury to have their cases reviewed by a judge.
“It is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes fiscal commonsense as far as our budget is concerned,” he said.
Neither of the two bills received enough support to be passed within the allotted time in the session, and the fates of these bills are unclear whether they will be taken up again in upcoming sessions.
Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, the chair of the Alabama House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee and retired Birmingham police captain, said that he errs “on the side of the victims” when approaching crime issues.
“We can debate all day long about inmates being in prison for too long,” he said. “But when you present a bill that would address the aging population and you define the aging population as 50 years old, that is a red flag for me.”
Treadaway wavered when asked what age should be considered elderly and said that he would consider a host of factors that included a person’s behavior in prison, the crime that was committed, and whether the person received help.
“There is another component there, and that would be the victims of those crimes,” he said. “If you lost a loved one to a very brutal murder, are you willing to feel like someone should be let out who is 50 years old, that has served 15 years of the sentence or more; I don’t submit you would.”
Former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb supported England’s parole board legislation, saying she believed those applying for parole should be allowed to testify on their behalf.
“I wanted the parole board to see them,” Cobb said. “I wanted them to see that given how old they are, they are no longer a threat to public safety. It is inhumane, unjust, and costly to keep people who are that elderly in prison.”
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