The U.S. median age is at a high of 38.9 years: an increase of three and half years in the last 23 years. The U.S. prison population is aging at a much faster rate than the nation as a whole and older adults represent a growing portion of people who are arrested and incarcerated each year, reports the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). The aging of the prison population is the result of a series of policy decisions in policing, sentencing, and reentry over the last half-century. While prisons and jails are unhealthy for people of all ages, older adults’ interactions with these systems are particularly dangerous, if not deadly, PPI says. Older adults are increasingly ensnared in all parts of the criminal legal process: arrests, pretrial detention, and imprisonment. In 2000, 3% of all adult arrests involved people aged 55 or older, and by 2021, this older population accounted for 8% of all adult arrests. From 2020 to 2021 — during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was dangerous for older adults — the segment of the jail population aged 55 and older expanded by a greater proportion than any other age group, growing 24% compared to an average increase of 15% across all other age groups.
Older people make five times as much of the prison population as they did three decades ago. From 1991 to 2021, the percentage of the state and federal prison population nationwide aged 55 or older swelled from 3% to 15%. This growth is seen even more acutely for people serving life sentences: by 2020, 30% of people serving life sentences were at least 55 years old, with more than 61,400 older adults sentenced to die in prison. State and federal governments spend more money on consistently inadequate health care for their growing populations of older adults, PPI says. In California prisons in the 1990s, the state spent three times as much money to incarcerate an older person than someone of any other age group. Considering that the proportion of California’s prison population over the age of 50 has risen from about 4% in 1994 to 25% in 2019, and that prison health care spending per-person has ballooned in the intervening years, the cost of incarcerating older adults is growing. In 2013, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) spent 19% of its total budget — or $881 million — to incarcerate older adults. That same year, the BOP reported this group was the “fastest growing segment of its inmate population” with a 25% increase over the course of a single year (as the rest of the population decreased by 1%).