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Elderly in Prison and Compassionate Release

Conservative Solutions


“The rationale for incarcerating elderly prisoners after they have ‘aged out’ of crime appears to be endless punishment and retribution, which does nothing to further public safety, and is a drain on already scarce resources in our justice system.”-Pat Nolan, Director of Nolan Center for Justice

All human beings have inherent dignity and value. Even those who have been convicted and incarcerated for crimes have dignity; unfortunately our criminal justice system continually fails to recognize this. Prisoners sentenced years and sometimes decades ago under the wave of draconian sentencing of the past have turned our prisons into highly secure nursing homes. A recent report by the Urban Institute found that the proportion of elderly prisoners in federal institutions would grow to 29% by 2019. Unfortunately for taxpayers, the cost to incarcerate these individuals is three to five times higher than younger offenders due to increased health care and caretaking services.

There is a wealth of information and data that shows prison inmates age faster than similarly situated counterparts on the outside. Increased levels of stress, poor diet, and a lack of sufficient medical care has led to institutions qualifying inmates as “elderly” at the age of 50. We also know that as prisoners age, there is a tendency to “age-out” of crime. Prisoners who are at least 50 years old have 15% re-arrest rate, compared to a 41% recidivism rate for all federal prisoners. Furthermore, those released through the compassionate release program had the lowest recidivism rate of all at 3.5%.

The compassionate release program is a program designed for deathly-sick and elderly prisoners “who are 65 and older, suffer from chronic or serious medical conditions related to the aging process, experience deteriorating mental or physical health that substantially diminishes their ability to function in a correctional facility, have served at least 50% of their sentence, and [have reached a state in which] conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement to their mental or physical condition.” 1If an elderly inmate meets these conditions, he or she can apply for compassionate release.

Under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1986, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has the power to ask the court to grant an individual an early release if there are “extraordinary and compelling” reasons. This process relies on the BOP to identify individuals who meet criteria for compassionate release, making the Bureau the only gatekeeper for early releases. The Department of Justice Inspector General found that in one year, only two of the 93 prisoners who applied for release under the non-medical provision were granted an early release. None of the 203 elderly prisoners with medical conditions had their application granted that year. Additionally, the BOP often delays its decision to grant compassionate release that many prisoners die while waiting.

Conservative Solutions

  • Clarify the grounds for compassionate release and urge the BOP to seek compassionate release any prisoner who meets the criteria.
  • Support timely and regular granting of compassionate release, where public safety permits, for prisoners who suffer from terminal illness, mental and physical disabilities, old age, or those facing other extraordinary and compelling circumstances.
  • Provide prisoners and families with information on the availability of compassionate release programs, and clear instructions on how to apply.

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