Sentencing Of Older Offenders
Overall, older adults receive more lenient sentences than younger persons for the same offenses. Exceptions to this pattern occur for drug offenses, where sentencing disparities are far narrower. A study of sentencing outcomes in Pennsylvania covering the 1991–1994 period revealed that those sixty and older sentenced for nondrug offenses were 26 percent less likely to receive a prison sentence than were offenders age twenty to twenty-nine, and the terms of those sentenced to prison averaged nearly eleven months less than the sentences of those age twenty to twenty-nine (Steffensmeier and Motivans, 2000).
The reasons for this disparity remain unclear, but they undoubtedly include a perception that older adults pose a lesser danger to society and that they have fewer years of life remaining, so a harsher sentence imposes a greater burden on older than on younger individuals.
Given the disparity between older and younger offenders in sentencing, it is little wonder that the most common offenses of older adults who are sentenced to probation, jail, or prison differ somewhat from the most common charges filed against older adults at the point of arrest and booking. In Florida, for example, the state with the highest proportion of residents sixty and older, nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of those under correctional supervision but not incarcerated in 1999–2000 were being supervised for sexual offenses; 21.5 percent were being supervised for theft, forgery or fraud; 18.0 percent for violent personal offenses; and 13.8 percent for drug offenses. While the order of primary offense categories was similar among Florida prison inmates sixty years of age and older during this same period, the second highest proportion (19.5 percent), was incarcerated for drug offenses, which was the top category (28.5 percent) among inmates under sixty years of age. These figures do not distinguish inmates according to criminal history or age when they committed the crime for which they were imprisoned. Those admitted to state prisons for the first time as older adults typically have been sentenced for very serious crimes.
The older prisoner population is growing rapidly, in part due to stiffer sentencing and reduced use of parole in most states in the late twentieth century. This very substantial expansion of the older prisoner population, which tends to be significantly less healthy than older adults in the noninstitutionalized population, is a cause for growing concern among state policy-makers. The cost of caring for a chronically ill prisoner is estimated to be about three times higher, on average, than that for a similar patient outside of prison.
BURTON DUNLOP MAX B. ROTHMAN
Florida Department of Corrections Bureau of Research and Data Analysis. Tallahassee, Fla.: Florida Department of Corrections.
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STEFFENSMEIER, D. , and MOTIVANS, M. "Sentencing the Older Offender: Is There an Age Bias?" In Elders, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System: Myth, Reality and Perception in the 21st Century. Edited by Max B. Rothman, Burton D. Dunlop, and Pamela Entzel. New York, N.Y.: Springer Publishing Company, Inc., 2000. Pages 185–205.