One of the more persistent myths from the uninformed criminal justice practitioner and editorial commentators like this one in the New York Times is that older criminals can be safely released from prison because, statistically, fewer older people commit crimes than younger people; when the truth is that older criminals are generally experientially smarter and get caught less.

An excerpt.

After declining for three years in a row, the nation’s stubbornly huge prison population has crept back up again. About 1,574,700 people were in prison at the end of 2013, up 4,300 from 2012. (While the federal population actually dropped for the first time in more than 30 years, it was offset by a larger increase in state prisoners.)

There are many ways to get this number back down, and in the process create a smarter, safer and more cost-effective penal system. One of the most long-known and sensible fixes, however, has proved in practice to be one of the hardest to employ: releasing older prisoners.

Thanks largely to harsh and rigid sentencing laws, aging inmates — defined as starting anywhere from 50 to 65, depending on the state — make up the largest and fastest-growing segment of the American prison population. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of inmates older than 55 nearly quadrupled; they are expected to account for a third of all prisoners by 2030.

Letting them out early makes sense for two reasons. First, they are far and away the most expensive inmates to house, costing at least twice as much as younger inmates, $16 billion per year over all. This is because the elderly have more significant medical needs — from broken bodies to failing minds — and because prisons are not designed to be old-age homes.

Just as important, older inmates are by far the least likely to reoffend. While close to half of younger inmates end up back in prison after release, only 7 percent of those older than 50 do, and only 4 percent of those over 65.

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