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New report: Virginia's prison population is growing older


The population of people incarcerated in Virginia is getting older.

In the last decade, the population of people over the age of 55 who are incarcerated in Virginia has doubled, increasing from 7% to 14%. That's according to a new report from the Prison Policy Institute.

Wanda Bertram at the institute says part of the reason for that is the over policing of certain populations.

"When we send police to scenes where someone is having a mental health crisis and they arrest that person, or when there's a law in a state that prohibits something like sleeping in a public park — so we're now criminalizing that," Bertram says. "That means that there are more people who are homeless or mentally ill who end up behind bars, and that skews the population older."

Another important reason for the graying of people incarcerated in Virginia is the abolition of parole back in the 1990s. Shawn Weneta at the ACLU of Virginia says all those tough-on-crime laws have turned prisons into nursing homes.

"There's a direct line between that and the enactment of Truth in Sentencing and the abolition of parole and eliminating incentives for rehabilitation and eliminating opportunities and mechanisms for review," Weneta says.

If Virginia was an independent country, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world. So, if lawmakers wanted to start reducing mass incarceration, advocates say, they could look at bringing back a system of parole, ending mandatory minimums and instituting compassionate release.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.