I saw this story last month in the Lancashire Evening Post - Hundreds of 'OAP hoodies' commit crimes in Lancashire.
It presented the image of a crime plague by elderly yobs. They had discovered that 550 pensioners have been arrested in the past two years with 320 charged. Nigel Evans, a local right wing Tory MP claimed "The figures will help to explode the myth that anyone over the age of 65 with a bus pass is fine" and John O'Reilly, chairman of Lancashire Police Federation declared "people will be surprised at the number of plus-65 hoodies we have in the county."
The article ends by telling us that Lancashire's Jails have 28 prisoners over 70. To put this in some context Lancashires population has 125,000 people over 70.
Although this journalism is designed to be sensational and distort the reality the rising number of old people being caught up in criminal justice system and ending up in prison is a real concern. The over 60s are the fastest growing group of prisoners. The Prison Reform Website identifies these key facts about Senior prisoners
- On 30 June 2007 there were 2,221 prisoners aged over 60 in England and Wales, including 405 over 70. The number of sentenced prisoners aged 60 and over rose by 169% between 1995 and 2005.
- More than one in ten older prisoners belong to a minority ethnic group, far higher than the proportion of the general population.
- The majority of men in prison aged 60 and over (56%) have committed sex offences. The next highest offence is violence against the person (20%) followed by drug offences (11%).
- In March 2007, the number of prisoners over 60 serving sentences of 1-5 years was 541. 551 were serving sentences of 6-10 years. 749 were serving sentences of over 10 years.
- The number and proportion of men aged over 60 sentenced to prison by the courts has increased significantly. Between 1995 and 2000 the number of elderly males given custodial sentences increased by 55%. In 1995 fines accounted for the majority of sentences (31%). By 2000 imprisonment accounted for the majority of sentences (31%) and fines accounted for 24%.
- The significant rise in the number of male prisoners aged over 60 is not matched by a corresponding rise in the number of men convicted by the courts for indictable offences. Between 1995 and 2000 the number of convictions for this age group increased by only 8%.
- The increase in the elderly prison population is not explained by demographic changes, nor can it be explained by a so-called ‘elderly crime wave’. The increases are due to harsher sentencing policies which have resulted in the courts sending a larger proportion of criminals aged over 60 to prison to serve longer sentences. This has particularly been the case in relation to sex offenders and drug traffickers. The courts are also tending to imprison those older offenders whose crimes most challenge society’s age-related stereotypes.
- A Department of Health study conducted in 1999/2000 of 203 sentenced male prisoners aged 60 and over in 15 establishments in England and Wales (about one-fifth of that total population) reported that 85% had one or more major illnesses reported in their medical records and 83% reported at least one chronic illness or disability when interviewed. The most common illnesses were psychiatric, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and respiratory.
- More than half of all elderly prisoners suffer from a mental disorder. The most common disorder is depression which often emerges as a result of imprisonment.
- In 2003, 21 people aged over 65 died of natural causes whilst in prison.
- Most older prisoners are held more than 50 miles from home, causing particular problems for visitors, many of whom are themselves older people.
- A thematic review of older prisoners by HM Inspectorate of Prisons published in December 2004 found little evidence that their individual needs were being assessed or provision made for them. It concluded ‘Prisons are primarily designed for, and inhabited by, young and able-bodied people; and in general the needs of the old and infirm are not met. A number of academic studies and a report by the Prison Reform Trust and the Centre for Policy on Ageing have also concluded that the health, social care, rehabilitation and resettlement needs of older prisoners are not being satisfactorily met.
- Despite the dramatic rise in the number of elderly prisoners the Home Office has no plans to put in place a separate national strategy for elderly prisoners. The Department of Health is developing a health policy for older prisoners and the Disability Discrimination act (2005) now applies to prison.