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Study: Michigan among the states with the most elderly prisoners serving life without parole

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Older adults make up a disproportionate number of Michigan’s longest-term prisoners, a new report finds.

In Michigan, 58% of the more than 4,800 people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole are over age 50, according to the analysis from The Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for countering mass incarceration.

The report defines prisoners over age 50 as "elderly" in part because of the negative health effects of incarceration. And lead researcher Ashley Nellis says prison contributes to a loss of dignity.

"There's the matter of trying to get up in a top bunk once you're older," she said. "Getting across from building to building, you know, these prison facilities are very large … and so older people stop, you know, attending classes and, and spiritual practices that are too, just too difficult to get to.”

The report examines 20 states where researchers could access complete data sets and found that, in Michigan, 86% of the life without parole prisoners over age 50 had already spent two decades or more behind bars — the highest rate of all the states studied.

The vast majority of people serving such sentences have been convicted of violent crimes, including 72% who've been sentenced for homicide, according to the study. Even so, Nellis says research indicates older people are less likely to reoffend.

"To incarcerate somebody past, you know, their 40s and 50s and 60s and claiming that it's for public safety reasons, it's just not borne out in the data," she said.

The study argues incarcerating the elderly is costly for taxpayers. Among other reforms, it suggests governors should more commonly use clemency to reduce sentences and that state laws should expand opportunities for compassionate release based on advanced age.

In Michigan, the parole board may choose to grant early release to someone because of a serious or terminal medical condition, although people sentenced to crimes punishable by life without parole are excluded from eligibility.

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