Study examines aging NC prison population, policies keeping people imprisoned longer

Worth your time today: a new study examining the aging population of North Carolina’s prisons, the policy history that has led to people being imprisoned for longer and what that means for the system and the state.

The report, from UNC-Chapel Hill Political Science professor Frank Baumgartner and student Sydney Johnson, documents “a powerful shift toward an older prison population, based on a small share of all those incarcerated being sentenced to terms of 50 years and longer, and to the elimination of parole.”

The result: prisons that grow more like nursing homes each year.

“The system has not yet come close to reaching a steady state,” the report concludes. “So for at least the next 20 years we can expect that the number of older individuals in the system will continue to rise, and dramatically so.”

From the report:

In 1975, 140 individuals were serving sentences of over 50 years; by 2020 this number had increased to 3,820. Figure 1 shows the numbers of individuals serving terms of 50 years or more. The figure includes those with terms of more than 50 years, natural life, life without the possibility of parole, and death.

This group represented less than two percent of the prison population in 1975, but over 12 percent in 2020. No other group showed a similar increase. Table 1 shows the crimes associated with those serving these long sentences. It shows the number of and percent of Black, White, Other race, and the Total number of individuals serving long prison terms for each type of crime.



The report traces longer prison sentences to changes in sentencing beginning in 1993 that have led to a steady build-up of older prisoners.

The study also documents important racial statistics in long sentences.

“Black individuals constitute 60 percent of all those serving terms of more than 50 years. That number, however, is starkly different among women, who constitute 124 of the 3,820 individuals serving long terms. Among women, 58 percent (72 of 124) are white. Among male prisoners serving these long sentences, blacks are 52 percent of those serving for sex-related crimes, 61 percent for first-degree murder, 66 percent for second-degree murder, 67 percent for drug-related crimes, 77 percent for other and lesser crimes, 78 percent for those serving for the 6 designation of habitual felon, and 80 percent (32 of 40 individuals) serving for the designation of “violent habitual felon.” Black men, of course, represent approximately 11 percent of the North Carolina population.”


Read the full report here.

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