The state’s prison population declined by half from March 2008 to March 2021, but the population of individuals aged 50 and above grew slightly, according to a follow-up report by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. No age segment under the age of 50 showed an increase.
The number of older incarcerated individuals has grown from 7,511 in March 2008 to 7,586 in March 2021. As a percentage of the state’s shrinking prison population, however, the older population has doubled. Nearly 1-in-4 (24.3%) of the state’s 31,262 incarcerated individuals were 50 and above in March 2021. Thirteen years earlier, just 12% of the then prison population of 62,597 were 50 and over. The share who are at least 60 years old nearly tripled from 2.7% in March 2008 to 7.9% in March 2021.
“The safe and efficient operation of the corrections system is critically important to protecting public safety, providing incarcerated individuals with opportunities to find success upon release and ensuring wise use of public resources,” DiNapoli said. “Since our initial 2017 report detailing the rise in the number of aging incarcerated individuals, we found that despite reductions in the overall size of the population, the share of older prisoners is increasing. In the months ahead, policymakers should examine opportunities to reduce the population of incarcerated individuals 50 and over where public safety would not be compromised.”
Factors Contributing to Population Change
At least two trends may explain the net gain in older prisoners: one is the rise in the number of admissions of older individuals to Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) prisons for a new offense or parole violation, which increased by an average of 3.5% per year from 2008 to 2020. The average age of incarcerated individuals under custody in New York state prisons was 40.3 years in March 2021, an increase of 4.1 years, or 11.4%, since March 2008. The number and the percentage of older individuals released from prisons to parole supervision under DOCCS jurisdiction also rose.
The state’s prison population has been trending downward for years. The decline has resulted from various factors such as reduced admissions and releases to parole supervision, early release of certain individuals during the COVID pandemic and reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2009. The most recent state report on the impact of the 2009 reforms shows significant declines in felony drug arrests (-41.7%), indictments (-42.6%) and prison time (-32.9%) from 2010 to 2019.
In addition, Raise the Age legislation enacted in 2017 and fully implemented in 2020 removed all individuals under the age of 18 from DOCCS prisons to facilities operated by the state Office of Children and Family Services. State prisons housed over 200 16- and-17-year-olds in March of 2008, but only 26 in March 2020.
Cost of Medical Care
Overall health care costs for the state prison system have averaged about $350 million per year since State Fiscal Year (SFY) 2012-13, peaking at just under $400 million in SFY 2016-17. Costs have trended significantly lower since, likely due in part to declines in the state prison population. Over the same period, health care costs for each incarcerated individual have averaged about $7,380 per year, 29% higher in SFY 2020-21 than they were eight years ago. DOCCS pays almost all the health care costs of incarcerated individuals in state prisons.
DOCCS has acknowledged the potential of higher medical costs for aging incarcerated individuals in testimony to the state legislature but has not provided specific information about those costs. DiNapoli said DOCCS should take the necessary steps to collect and share this information with policymakers to allow for more informed choices about the best way to address this challenge.
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