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Baby Boomers Behind Bars: The Graying of America's Prisons

New Study Links Baby Boomers to Rise in Older Prison Inmates  
CAMBRIDGE, MA — Older inmates are the fastest growing population in federal and state prisons, and the Baby Boom population is a significant contributing factor in the increase in prisoners over the age of 50. This is one of the key findings in a new Abt Associates study which explores the “graying” of prisons in the United States.
The paper, written by Abt Associates’ Senior Associate Dr. Jeremy Luallen and Analyst Chris Cutler and published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, examines the association between the aging of the general population and that of prison inmates, noting that as much as half of the increase in older inmate prison population growth since 2000 can be attributed to Baby Boomers. The study also notes the challenges an older inmate population presents state and federal prisons, including an estimated $16 billion spent each year to house and care for older prisoners.   
“America’s aging prison population comes with serious policy implications,” said Dr. Luallen. “Older inmates need more healthcare services. Growing health care and other costs are putting additional strain on already tight federal and state prison budgets.”   
The paper highlights other policy implications and lessons to consider, including:

  • The current trend of an aging population is natural and no policies can change these trends. As such, focusing on reducing health care costs and cutting overall inmate costs may be a first-best approach;
  • As demographic trends reverse, so too should the financial pressures associated with an aging prison population;
  • Other factors, such as social or economic forces, sentencing policies, and enforcement strategies must also be considered when studying the rise in older inmates in prisons; and,
  • Policy changes should be flexible. The Baby Boom cohort will eventually pass through the general population and the prison population.

According to the research, some states have begun to address the aging prison population trend with new policies aimed at alleviating costs. At least 17 states have adopted prison release policies which allow for older inmates to be released on the basis of their age, medical condition, or risk to public safety.
Researchers used prison data came from the National Corrections Reporting Program and U.S. population data from the U.S. Census Bureau in an analysis spanning 2000 to 2011. The National Corrections Reporting Program is a data collection funded by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and operated by Abt Associates. The researchers used a sample of 17 states in their study:  California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Washington state, and West Virginia. 
Read the article.
About Abt Associates
Abt Associates is a mission-driven, global leader in research, evaluation and program implementation in the fields of health, social and environmental policy, and international development. Known for its rigorous approach to solving complex challenges, Abt Associates is regularly ranked as one of the top 20 global research firms and one of the top 40 international development innovators. The company has multiple offices in the U.S. and program offices in more than 40 countries. 
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