(WALA) - As Americans' life expectancy grows, so does the age of inmates in U.S. prisons.
The Southern Legislative Conference says that by the year 2030, a little over 80 million people in the U.S. will be over the age of 65, comprising 20 percent of the population.
Along with the explosion of baby boomers reaching their elderly years, life expectancy has continually risen thanks to advances in medical technology, contributing to what the SLC calls the "Graying of America."
This explosion in the elderly has increased the number of elderly inmates significantly.
"Correspondingly, these trends are reflected in the growing percentage of elderly persons in prison, which has been steadily increasing since the early 1980s and, particularly, over the last decade," the report says.
Along with an ever-increasing life expectancy, harsher sentencing laws have kept people in prison longer than ever before.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as part of America's renewed determination against illegal drug use, state sentencing laws across the board have increased—even for non-drug related crimes. With the inclusion of two- and three-strike laws, as well as "truth in sentencing" legislation that has cut down on shorter sentencing for good behavior and parole, many inmates who were sentenced in their youth are still in prison.
According to the SLC's report, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 also played a significant part in growing the population of state prisons, and inadvertently in the age of inmates within.
The bill, which was the most sweeping anti-crime initiative to date, was intended to stamp-out violent crimes, it had little effect in swelling the tide, as violent crimes continued to increase. It did, however, increase the average sentence for inmates after its passage and led to an increasingly older population behind bars.
In Alabama, the period from 1997-2006 saw an increase in total inmates of 28.9 percent. The number of elderly inmates in Alabama prisons jumped for the same period 193 percent.
Along with abolition of parole in some states for certain crimes and more political pressure being exerted on pardons and parole boards, prisoners are spending more time in prison than ever—and more are dying behind bars, too.
Nationwide, the U.S. Justice Department has estimated that, in 2002, almost 4,000 inmates died in prison. There are no hard numbers, but the SLC estimates that many of them would have been released before their death—and would have lived long—if not for harsher sentencing laws.
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