American prisons hold 76,600 inmates who are 55 or older. While some remain dangerous, many are like the 73-year-old murderer Ray Tatum, who can barely walk, never mind maim or kill anyone. According to a September Washington Post story on Deerfield Correction Center, Virginia's main facility for aged inmates, Tatum will spend the rest of his life in prison, with his medical expenses shouldered by state taxpayers. For Virginia, which virtually eliminated parole in 1995, maintaining law and order means asking society to pay a lifetime's worth of medical bills for people convicted of crimes ranging from rape to carjacking.
According to the Sentencing Project, a national organization that focuses on inequalities in the criminal justice system, imprisonment costs three times as much for a geriatric patient as it does for an able-bodied adult. Yet mandatory sentencing and policies like California's "three strikes" law, which effectively mandates life terms for prisoners convicted of three felonies, mean that prisons will house an ever-increasing number of incapacitated old folks.
"People are going to prison much longer than they would have previously for the same crime," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "There are many problems with that, not the least of which is that it becomes extremely expensive to keep them housed, and you get diminishing returns in terms of public safety benefits."
When an inmate is Ray Tatum's age, those returns diminish to almost nothing. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, only 0.8 percent of the 10 million or so people arrested in the U.S. in 2009 were over 65.