We offered incorrect observations below. We interpreted the chart (see bottom of article) as “intakes” when the data applies to the “static” prison population. The chart came immediately after a section on “Admissions and releases of sentenced prisoners,” which was table seven of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) publication (citation below). The chart we used was table eight. Language used at the beginning of table eight (“Prisoners age 55 or older made up almost 11% of the U.S. prison population sentenced to more than 1 year in 2015”) gives the impression that BJS was referring to intakes. It’s a lesson on using data from BJS and how it’s important to pay attention to category headings. The mistake is ours. We regret the error.
Older individuals are being sentenced to prison at fairly high percentages.
Can we assume that older people sentenced have been before the courts too many times for serious crimes?
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Master’s certificate-Johns Hopkins University.
A primary tenet of criminology is age; the younger you are, the greater your propensity for criminal activity. Criminology textbooks traditionally define the most crime prone years as those 15-25.
According to traditional criminological thought, the younger you are, the greater your chances for being sentenced to prison.
But the chart below from the US Department of Justice indicates that older individuals are currently being sentenced to prison at fairly high percentages.
For example, the percentage of those sentenced to prison for the 20-24 age bracket is 10.5, but the percentage of those 45-49 is 10.3.
There are double-digit percentages for all age brackets from 20 to age 49 with those 50-54 being close with 8.6 percent of sentenced prisoners.
The highest age bracket for sentencing to prison is 30-34 with 16.5 percent (hardly young).
The next highest is the 25-20 age bracket with 15.6 percent (expected per traditional criminological thought).
But next highest is the 35-39 age bracket with 14.6 percent (again, hardly young).
See chart below.
Why Are We Incarcerating Older Offenders?
A battle for the hearts and minds of the American public and criminal justice community has been waged for decades with the philosophical argument that the United States over-charges, over-prosecutes, over-jails and over-incarcerates.
So if the advocates are remotely correct, why are we sending older people to prison?
According to traditional criminological thought, incarceration works to reduce crime by incapacitating younger people during their crime prone years.
Sentencing older people to prison in double-digits doesn’t make sense unless they are committing more crime or they have been before the court too many times or they have committed an extremely violent offense.
Unfortunately, FBI arrest data presents categories that are too broad to be useful. Out of 9,447,000 arrests in 2012, people under the age of 25 committed 3,733,000. There are categories of criminal activity such as robbery, burglary and vehicle theft where those under the age of 25, (in line with traditional criminological thought), committed most arrests. See FBI-Arrests by Age.
Who Goes to Prison?
Most people charged with crimes and most convicted of felonies don’t go to prison. Felony convictions were more likely to result in a sentence to prison (42%) than jail (33%).
About 3 in 4 defendants had been arrested at least once prior to the arrest on the current felony charge.
Nearly all of the defendants with an arrest record had multiple prior arrest charges.
About half (51%) of all defendants had five or more prior arrest charges, and more than a third (36%) had 10 or more.
About 3 in 5 defendants had been arrested previously on a felony charge.
About 3 in 5 defendants had at least one prior conviction.
Source: Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties; http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fdluc09.pdf
We don’t have longitudinal (long range) data on arrests or sentencing by age so it’s difficult to provide verifiable thoughts, but I assume that older people being sentenced have simply been before the courts too many times for serious crimes.
Apparently, the thought on the part of judges is that the older people sentenced are there because of their criminality with little thought as to the traditional criminological philosophy of deterrence during crime-prone years.
Additional insights from readers are welcomed.
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