Democrats Got Tough on Crime. Now There’s a Crisis of Aging Behind Bars.

Democrats Got Tough on Crime. Now There’s a Crisis of Aging Behind Bars.

Democrats Got Tough on Crime. Now There’s a Crisis of Aging Behind Bars.

California and New York legislators are trying to undo the damage caused since the 1994 Crime Bill. But elder parole isn’t working as hoped.


Rita De Anda has spent decades in prison waiting for a chance at parole. Two years ago, when the then-56-year-old learned it might come about a decade earlier than she expected, De Anda was overjoyed. “I’m going home!” she thought.

Several years earlier, in 2014, a federal court had ruled that California prisoners age 60 and older who’d served at least 25 years of their sentence must immediately become eligible for parole. The ruling flowed from a class-action lawsuit charging that extreme overcrowding in the state’s prisons prevented the facilities from providing adequate medical and mental health care, resulting in “needless suffering and death.” Six years later, in 2020, legislators expanded the eligibility for “elder parole” in California to people 50 and older who had served at least 20 years. De Anda believed she would qualify.

Until then, she had resigned herself to the possibility of living out the rest of her life behind bars, far from her family. In 1998, De Anda, then 33, was convicted of fatally stabbing her boyfriend the previous year. The two had met while De Anda was in county jail serving a one-year sentence for residential burglary. While the jail separated men and women, they could see each other through a chain-link fence when they were in the yard. Donald Peterson was finishing his own sentence for theft. When De Anda was released, she moved in with Peterson at his brother’s house.

Peterson began behaving jealously, demanding to know her whereabouts at all times. During an argument, she said, he threw her to the ground but then quickly apologized. In another altercation, he beat her, slamming her head into a door. She left, planning to return the next morning to retrieve her belongings after Peterson had gone to work. A friend, concerned that Peterson would attack her again, gave her a knife to protect herself.

The next morning, De Anda confronted Peterson about his violence. Peterson poured his coffee on her and hit her, she said. They continued to fight outside the house. De Anda said that she managed to get back to the car she had borrowed. When Peterson followed, she pulled out the knife, stabbed him, and then fled.

Police arrested her later that day. That was when she learned that she had killed him.

Under California law, De Anda’s conviction once would have carried a sentence of 15 years to life. But in 1994, California had passed its Three Strikes law, which required the judge to hand out a much harsher sentence.

Because it was De Anda’s second felony conviction, or second strike, the judge was required to double her sentence and, because she’d used a weapon, add an additional six years. The combined sentence meant that she would have to serve a total of 36 years before becoming eligible to appear before the parole board. As of today, De Anda has served 23 years.

De Anda’s extreme sentence is one of hundreds of thousands handed out in the 1990s as politicians, racing to be the toughest on crime, passed laws enhancing and extending prison sentences. Although crime rates were actually declining, the number of people sentenced to prison rose from 789,610 in 1991 to 1,252,830 in 1998—a 59 percent increase.

In 1994, Democratic lawmakers championed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which built on the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The 1994 crime bill encouraged states to pass more punitive sentencing laws and awarded federal funding for new prisons and jails in exchange for dramatically limiting “earned time” credits for incarcerated people. This provision meant that, no matter what strides a person had made behind bars, there was virtually no time off their sentence awarded for good behavior (or self-transformation). The act also stripped Pell Grants from college students behind bars.

During that decade, a new prison opened every 15 days.

Under California’s Three Strikes law, people convicted of a third felony, regardless of its severity or how long ago their previous felonies had occurred, were automatically sentenced to 25 years to life. Some of these third strikes included acts as minor as stealing pizza, possessing crack, or stealing $20 worth of coffee from a church kitchen. (In 2012, California amended the law to make the third strike apply only to serious or violent felonies. Those who were already serving a third-strike sentence could petition the court to reduce their sentence to a second strike.) By 2000, the number of people serving a sentence of life with the possibility of parole had nearly doubled—and that number continued to climb throughout the 2000s.

It wasn’t just in California, either. In 1995, prison populations nationwide rose by 9 percent, or 88,400 people, to what was then the highest number of prisoners to date: 1.1 million. That figure would be eclipsed again and again throughout the 1990s, as prosecutors reached for the most serious charges and judges were required to impose lengthier sentences. It would peak in 2008, when one out of every 100 Americans was behind bars.

Today, the United States continues to have both the world’s highest number of prisoners and its highest incarceration rate.

As early as 1994, researchers were warning that these draconian punishments, so popular in the 1990s, would precipitate a crisis of aging behind bars. Their warnings went unheeded but have proved prescient. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of incarcerated people age 55 and older nearly quadrupled. At the end of 2020, more than 22 percent (or over 261,000 people) of the nation’s prison population was 50 or older. And the problem is getting worse: Experts estimate that by 2030, one in three people in US prisons will be over 50.

Outside prison, 50-year-olds are no longer considered senior citizens. But incarceration, which often brings with it years of poor nutrition, infrequent opportunities for exercise, inadequate medical care, and constant stress, chaos, and violence, accelerates the physiological aging process and can shorten life expectancy. Research suggests that a year in prison can shorten a person’s life expectancy by two years. At the same time, prisons are facing an explosion in geriatric needs. Prison medical systems, already ill-equipped to address many basic needs, now face patients with declining mobility and cognitive abilities. They report a steep increase in conditions such as arthritis, pulmonary and heart disease, and cancer.

As Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, warned, “The worst of this aging crisis in prisons is yet to come.”

When De Anda learned in 2020 about the state’s new age threshold for older prisoners, she knew an elder parole hearing could mean the opportunity to return to her family before another decade passed. Her four children, who were ages 7 to 13 when she was arrested, were now adults. Her youngest was expecting her first baby and De Anda’s fifth grandchild. De Anda’s mother, in her 80s and struggling with failing eyesight, needed help getting around, a role that De Anda, after decades away, longed to fill. She had gotten sober, completed dozens of prison programs, and was now a facilitator of the prison’s support group for domestic violence survivors, so she was confident that the parole board would see how much she’d changed.

But in September 2021, De Anda learned some devastating news: The law excluded not only those sentenced to death or life without parole, but also those convicted of a second or third strike under the Three Strikes law. That meant De Anda, who’d been sentenced on a second strike, wouldn’t be eligible to apply this year, as she and her family had originally thought. There was a small silver lining: The court-ordered elder parole mandate had moved her parole eligibility to May 2024, a decade earlier than her original sentence.

De Anda is far from the only older person in California’s prisons whose hopes were stoked by the new legislation but crushed by the reality of the law’s application. The Nation and Type Investigations analyzed California’s elder parole data for the years since 2014 and found that neither the court-ordered provision nor the legislation that followed has resulted in a substantial decrease in the state’s aging prison population—the result, in part, of exemptions like the one that has delayed De Anda’s hearing.

“Part of the reason the law isn’t working as we had hoped is that it’s actually narrower in scope in terms of who it applies to,” said Emily Harris, policy director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in an interview.

Just as significant, the parole board retains complete discretion over whether a person gets released ahead of completing their maximum sentence, and it has proved exceedingly difficult for those who are granted hearings to convince the board that they’ve changed enough to be released. Between February 2014 and September 2022, California’s parole board held 7,434 hearings for those eligible for elder parole. It granted 2,112 releases (28 percent), denied 4,650 applicants (63 percent), and stipulated that another 672 applicants were unsuitable for review.

An additional 4,457 scheduled elder parole hearings were waived, postponed, continued, or canceled. Counting those significantly decreases the number of people actually released to 18 percent of the 11,891 parole-eligible applicants.

Though the law requires parole commissioners to consider an applicant’s age, it does not specify how much weight to give to their age, time served, or the ways in which they have spent their years behind bars. Thus, the results are unpredictable: The commissioners might deny one applicant based on their history of fighting and lack of program participation, but also another who has participated in dozens of programs and has no record of violence during their decades in prison. “[The law] needs more teeth in terms of considering age as a factor,” Harris said.

California’s parole hearings typically last multiple hours, with two to three commissioners questioning applicants at length about their crimes and pressing them about any variation from court transcripts or their responses at previous parole hearings.

As one commissioner explained during a 2016 hearing, “We’re trying to ascertain whether you understand what happened, whether you have identified how you got to that point and whether you have addressed all the demons that got you here…. I think the perfect hearing is when we ask a simple question and allow you to speak, because it’s all about us trying to ascertain your understanding.”

That may sound reasonable on paper, but in practice it results in standards that are often impossible to meet, said Keith Wattley, the founder and director of UnCommon Law. “This process depends on the subjective opinions of people who, for the most part, have spent their careers locking up people that we, as a society, have been taught to fear.” (Seventeen of California’s 20 parole commissioners have previously worked in law enforcement, the courts, or the state’s prisons.) “As a result,” Wattley noted, “we see that people who are Black, brown, gender-nonconforming, differently able, are most likely to be denied parole.”

A 2019 study of 426 parole hearings for those who were under the age of 26 when they’d committed crimes found that the board was 2.7 times more likely to grant parole to a non-Black applicant than a Black one. While the law required parole commissioners to give “great weight” to the diminished culpability of youth, the study’s author, law professor Kristen Bell, noted that it did not define “great weight.”

“Because the board has so much discretion in how it makes these decisions, the grant rate [for youth] wasn’t substantially different than it was for adults,” she said.

While no similar study exists for elder parole, Bell is part of a research team that is reviewing 50,000 parole transcripts for bias in California’s parole decisions.

Parole commissioners focus heavily on whether the applicant demonstrates insight. “‘Insight’ is one of the most overused, least understood terms that we talk about in this subjective parole process,” Wattley said. It can include whether the applicant is able to recite the details of their crime, the number and name(s) of their victim(s), and the ways in which the victims were harmed, as well as the applicant’s expressions of remorse.

But, Wattley continued, reliance on insight is problematic. For instance, parole commissioners will question a 56-year-old who has been imprisoned for a crime they committed as a teenager about the choices they made at that time. “Whether or not someone can answer that question has no bearing on their violence risk at age 56,” he observed. “But the board says, ‘If you don’t understand why you did these things at that age, you’re likely to recommit violence.’ That’s just not true, but it sounds good.”

Indeed, research indicates that people age out of crime and that the rates of recidivism, or being returned to prison, drop dramatically in a person’s later years.

California’s recidivism rate was 44.6 percent for the years 2015–16 (the latest data available). For people age 55 to 59 with a serious offense, the three-year conviction rate was 28.1 percent. And it was 14.4 percent for those 60 and over. For people convicted of murder, the rate was even lower: A Stanford University study found that of 860 people convicted of murder and later paroled, only five (or less than 1 percent) were reincarcerated for a new crime.

Of the 110 people who were granted elder parole in 2015–16 (the latest year for which data is available), only one person (or 0.9 percent) returned to prison.

Many incarcerated people who have faced multiple parole denials are reluctant to speak publicly about their experiences, fearing repercussions at future hearings. “Scarlett,” who is now in her 70s, was one of the few willing to speak with us, on the condition that we not publish her real name.

Scarlett has been imprisoned since the late 1980s for fatally shooting her adult daughter. She suffers from degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, and arthritis of the spine. She has had open-heart surgery to implant an artificial valve. She uses a walker to get around the prison, and even then she’s unsteady and prone to falling. During the pandemic, she did fall—hard enough to require surgery.

Scarlett became eligible for parole in her mid-50s, but at each hearing she has been denied. At her latest hearing, in 2021, she stated that she has participated in numerous prison programs, including ones recommended at previous hearings, that have taught her better ways to address conflict and anger. During her decades in prison, she has had no history of violent behavior, not even a fight. Now, when she’s confronted with a conflict, Scarlett told the parole commissioners, “I turn and walk away.”

But what continues to carry the most weight at these hearings is the fact that she killed her adult daughter in what she admits was a jealous rage over a man. It is something that, no matter how many programs, counseling sessions, and other classes she takes, Scarlett can never change. “I cannot look back and take back what I have caused,” she admitted at her last parole hearing. “I have looked back on that day many, many times in the past 34 years and realize what a monster I truly was and how selfish I had been.”

Scarlett’s parole attorney noted in the hearing that she had no prior history of violence or arrests. “This is not somebody who was likely to go back to the person she was and commit crimes in the future, should she be paroled,” he said. At the hearing, he also pointed out that during her decades in prison, Scarlett had never committed a single act of violence. “What does that tell you? That tells you that this inmate is able to manage her emotions, manage her anger, manage her frustrations, manage those issues that were difficult for her to manage prior to coming to prison.”

Parole hearings typically include the prosecutor’s office. Not surprisingly, the assistant district attorney for the county in which Scarlett had been convicted opposed her release. The ADA acknowledged Scarlett’s participation in rehabilitative programs and her lack of violent behavior in prison, but argued that her inability to articulate her motivations for killing her daughter over 30 years earlier demonstrated that she had not learned from these programs. “Today, when asked by the commissioner, ‘Why did you kill your daughter?,’ her answer [was] ‘I don’t know.’ After all these years and all these classes, she still doesn’t know why she killed her own daughter in cold blood.”

The ADA described the details of Scarlett’s crime, then stated, “The inmate said today that the only reason she is not dangerous is because of her physical infirmities, but you know what? She can still hold a shotgun.”

In fact, Scarlett had not cited her physical infirmities as the sole reason she was no longer dangerous, but had also talked about learning conflict resolution and anger management skills, both of which she practiced regularly in the chaotic environment of prison. But the ADA’s assertion seemed to carry more weight than any of Scarlett’s efforts at self-rehabilitation. When denying her parole, the commissioners stated, “We considered that you are at an age that statistically reduces the probability of recidivism…. We also took into consideration your advanced age, your long-term confinement, your diminished physical condition, and, taking these factors into consideration, we do find that these mitigate your risk. However, it does not totally preclude you from violently reoffending if you choose to do so in the future.”

That year, California’s parole commissioners denied 657 (or nearly 65 percent) of the 1,017 elder parole applicants who appeared before them.

While California has changed its approach to elder parole—at least on paper—New York has no policy in place for prisoners age 50 and older, who constitute 24 percent of its prison population, according to the state comptroller. Organizing under the slogan “If the risk is low, let them go,” advocates—including imprisoned people themselves—have been working to bring about an elder parole statute similar to California’s for the past several years.

Stanley Bellamy, who turned 60 this past July, is one of the people pushing for the law in New York. He spent most of his 20s and the entirety of his 30s, 40s, and 50s in New York’s maximum-security prisons.

In 1985, Bellamy, then 23, was involved in a gun deal that took place beneath an overpass in Queens. Bellamy, his younger brother Joseph, and a friend were selling guns to two other men.

Then Bellamy heard a gunshot. “I’d been shot before, and I was not getting shot again,” he explained. He fired his own gun, hitting one of the would-be buyers. That man survived. The other man was also shot and later died from his wounds.

At trial, the survivor testified that Bellamy’s brother was the one who’d fired the fatal shot, though Bellamy insists that it was his friend who did. Nevertheless, Bellamy was convicted of felony murder, a charge that allows prosecutors and judges to punish people for killings that occur during the commission of a felony, even if that person did not directly cause the death or anticipate that it would happen.

Bellamy had a previous conviction for attempted robbery, for which he’d served eight months on Rikers Island. That rendered him a second-time offender, and the judge sentenced him as such.

Bellamy was shocked when the judge handed down his sentence: 62½ years to life. He said that he could not turn around and even look at his mother and sister, who were sitting on the benches behind him. “I don’t think I said anything,” he recalled in an interview with The Nation and Type Investigations. When he returned to the bullpen (the cells for those awaiting court hearings), he simply stared at the wall, not believing what had happened.

Many of his friends and neighbors from Queens had gone to prison. But, he recalled, “I never heard such a sentence like that.” (Joseph was sentenced to 58 years to life. The brothers have not seen each other since 1991.)

During his first two years in prison, Bellamy became involved in prison drug dealing—and got entangled in all its accompanying ruthlessness and violence.

“I had the sentence, and I didn’t care,” he recalled. “I abdicated my humanity.”

In 1989, he said, he learned that his ex-girlfriend, who was the mother of his two young sons, had become addicted to crack. “I made the decision that I need to get myself together in order to be a father to my kids,” he said. Because of his decades-long prison sentence, he added, “they no longer had a father out there. And now [with her addiction], they no longer had a mother either.”

Bellamy vowed to change his life. He enrolled in Black and African American studies classes, striving to become a role model not only for his sons but for the younger Black men around him.

In 1995, after the state Legislature slashed the funding for New York’s remaining college-in-prison programs, Bellamy helped set up a computer literacy program. He also began facilitating anti-violence seminars and organizing events in which incarcerated men raised money for gun buyback programs, school supplies, and other ways to give back to the communities they’d harmed.

Informally, he also mentored men entering prison, hoping to keep them off the same tragic path he’d traveled. And there were many to mentor: During the 1990s, nearly 22,000 people entered the New York prison system. By 1999, when the state prison population hit its peak, nearly 73,000 people were incarcerated.

The reason for the jump in New York’s imprisonment rate was similar to one that sent California’s skyrocketing during this period: Despite a nearly 50 percent drop in violent crime, state lawmakers passed a slew of tough-on-crime laws. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1995 increased minimum sentences for a first felony, eliminated parole for those with previous convictions involving violence, and required that a person convicted of a third felony be given a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In 1996, lawmakers passed an act that allowed judges to tack an additional five-year sentence onto any felony in which a gun had been brandished, even if it had not been fired.

While the number of people in New York serving a sentence of life with the possibility of parole never surpassed the number in California, it nevertheless more than doubled, from 5,867 in 1987 to 12,854 in 2004.

And in both states, the prison population has grown older over time. As of September 2022, there were 4,741 people in New York’s prisons who were 55 or older. During the past decade, more than half of the deaths in New York’s prisons have been in this age group, a 504 percent increase since the 1980s. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, at least 842 people over the age of 55 have been imprisoned since 2007 but are not yet eligible for their first parole hearing. More than half must wait until 2030 for that chance.

The legislation that Bellamy and others in New York have been fighting to pass would change that. The bill, introduced in the state Assembly in 2017 and the state Senate in 2018, would require parole hearings for incarcerated people 55 and older who have served at least 15 years of their sentence. As with California’s law, the elder parole process does not guarantee release. Parole commissioners would still decide whether the person poses a threat to the public and whether their behavior inside prison demonstrates a changed mindset. Fearmongering about rising crime rates continues to weigh against applicants’ chances of approval.

Both the Assembly and the Senate bills have remained stalled in their respective corrections committees since April 2021. Still, Senator Brad Hoylman, the lead sponsor of the Senate version, said he’s confident the bill will pass this session. “Reports of abuse in prisons are skyrocketing, and our elder population in prisons remains in increasing danger,” he told The Nation and Type Investigations via e-mail. “For many, passing this bill is quite literally a matter of life or death.”

If elder parole had become law and gone into effect immediately in 2021, 1,021 people would have become eligible for a parole hearing by the end of the year, according to an estimate by the Vera Institute for Justice. Nearly two-thirds of those newly eligible would have been people of color. Unlike the California law, the New York bill has no exclusions, meaning that people serving life without parole and those serving determinate sentences (currently excluded from parole hearings) would become eligible.

“I benefited from the skills, experience, wisdom, and patience of elder incarcerated mentors throughout my 38 years of incarceration,” Jose Saldana, the director of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), said in an interview. Saldana was paroled in 2018, at age 65. “I would not be the same human being I am today if they were not a part of my transformation. I am one of thousands whom they helped become better human beings. Such men and women and nonbinary people are an asset to society and should not die in prison.”

That includes Stanley Bellamy, with whom Saldana cofounded several programs while both men were incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility.

“If elder parole passes, and I or my brother [who is 57] are granted parole, it will not only give me a chance to spend time with my sons and grandsons, but also give my 89-year-old mother a chance to see her sons come home before she dies,” Bellamy wrote in an e-mail.

But without elder parole, Bellamy will have to wait until December 2047 for his first parole hearing. By then, he will be 85 years old.

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