New research is raising a unique red flag about a subset of that population likely forgotten by most: prisoners. The stakes are spelled out in “Persons Living with Dementia in the Criminal Legal System,” a report from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging in collaboration with the University of Virginia and the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, the University of Virginia reports. The report notes that an estimated 6.2 million Americans aged 65 and older currently have dementia and that number is projected to increase to 12.7 million by 2050. As the U.S. population ages and rates of dementia increase, the prevalence of dementia among persons involved in the criminal justice system can also be expected to increase..
The number of prisoners 55 and older increased 400 percent from 1993 to 2013. Experts predict that by 2030, this age group will make up one-third of the prison population. The dynamic is also attributable to a nationwide stiffening of criminal sentencing during the late 1980s and 1990s, particularly lengthy mandatory terms. "We have more elderly prisoners because terms of imprisonment are much harsher than they were before the 1980s,” the report says. There is widespread agreement that most correctional systems are unprepared or unable to provide a safe and caring place for people with neurocognitive troubles. The report calls for jails and prisons to develop and implement an efficient method for dementia screening. Richard Bonnie, director of the UVA School of Law’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, says, “We need systemwide training for case identification and response for all criminal justice personnel – including law enforcement, attorneys and judges, and particularly for correctional agencies."