Prisoners of Age.

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Today's Washington Post has a fascinating article on the problem Virginia has with its growing population of elderly inmates:

Deerfield, Virginia's only geriatric prison, is where the state's inmates are sent to grow old. They're transferred to this facility in Capron, near the North Carolina border, when they're too weak to stand or feed themselves, when they don't have much time left.

Since the General Assembly abolished parole for the newly convicted in 1995, the number of elderly inmates in custody has soared. In 1990, there were 900 inmates over the age of 50. Now there are more than 5,000. Deerfield Correctional, which once housed 400 inmates, has become a 1,000-bed facility with a long waiting list.

As the Post notes, Virginia's experiences with geriatric prisoners foreshadowed a national trend, "between 1999 and 2007, the number of inmates 55 or older in state and federal prisons grew 76.9 percent, from 43,300 to 76,600." At least 16 states have established separate prisons for older inmates, and some states have gone as far as to offer nursing home living and hospice care for elderly prisoners. Given the huge number of inmates serving life sentences -- 140,610 out of 2.3 million inmates nationwide in 2009 -- it's safe to say that more states will find themselves in the business of caring for elderly, infirm, and dying prisoners.

I understand the logic of incarcerating the elderly -- a murder committed 40 years ago is still a murder -- but it's hard to see the enterprise as anything other than absurd. Crime is a game for the young; the vast majority of crimes are committed by men in their late teens and 20s. Criminal behavior drops sharply drops after age 30 and enters a permanent tailspin after late middle age. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report for 2009, fewer than 1 percent of all crimes are attributable to those 60 and older. Assuming you could weed out the most dangerous inmates from those who are basically harmless, it makes the most sense to just release prisoners once they reach 65; at that point, they are well past the peak years for criminal behavior. If that's too radical, you could mandate the possibility of parole for any inmate serving a life sentence, or one that would leave them imprisoned past the age of 60.

One of the things that stuck out about the WaPo article was this line:

Buddy Francis, 77, sits along the wall of the assisted living unit, in a row reserved for bedridden inmates. He was sentenced to 52 years for attempted capital murder. So far, he's served 28.

Francis tries his best to gesticulate as he talks, raising weak arms inches above his chest. "It don't make sense that they're still keeping me here," he said. "I'm not going to hurt nobody." He points to his thin legs, barely able to carry his weight. "I can't hurt nobody."

This sums it up: All things being equal, I simply don't see how we are helped by keeping these men behind bars.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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