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Why Older Offenders?

Older people in the Criminal Justice System are a hidden and little-recognised population, which few people would identify as the fastest growing section of the population involved in the UK's criminal justice system.


An older offender is generally defined as someone involved in the criminal justice system who is aged 50 or over. Although many people aged 50 may not consider themselves "older", it is seen as an appropriate threshold amongst this group in recognition of the practical realities they face. There is substantial evidence to suggest that prisoners suffer greater health problems than the general population, with many of them having health characteristics typical of someone aged ten years older who is not in prison.


  • People aged 60 and over and those aged 50-59 are respectively the first and second fastest growing age groups in the prison population. (MOJ 2014)
  • Between 2002 and 2014 there was an increase of 146% and 122% in the number of prisoners held in those age groups respectively.  (MOJ 2014)
  • HMIP reports that 37% of those aged over 50 had a disability (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2009)
  • 72% of male prisoners have 2 or more mental health illnesses (Dept of Health 2012)
  • 49% of women and 23% of male prisoners were assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression, compared with 16% of the general UK population (MOJ 2013).
  • On 30 June 2014 there were 11,080 prisoners aged 50 and over in England & Wales. This group makes up 13% of the total prison population. (Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile 2014)


  • There are no specific national policies addressing the particular needs of this group.
  • Those retired in prison often have no educational or leisure opportunities and remain locked in their cells for long periods of time.
  • Many older prisoners have lost contact with friends and family, and often do not have a home to return to on release from prison.
  • Most older prisoners are held more than 50 miles from home and a third are more than 100 miles away.
  • Funding for education in prisons is often limited to people of working age.
  • Disabilities associated with chronic disease and lifestyle are more common in older prisoners than older people in the community.
  • Individual institutions and organisations often lack the resources and specialist knowledge to meet older people’s health and social care requirements.
  • Prison Reform Trust research found that some older people entering prison had the medication they were receiving in the community stopped.
  • Despite being the fastest growing section of the prison population, there is little research, little data or information and little current provision available for older offenders.
  • 40% of prisons responding to a recent Prison Reform Trust survey reported that no specific age-related assessments or arrangements were in place.
  • HM Inspectorate of Prisons has identified "a complete lack of staff training in identifying the signs of mental health problems among the elderly".
  • The likelihood of having accommodation on release from custody decreases the older a prisoner is.  In 2010-11 the proportion of positive accommodation outcomes on release from custody were lower for those aged 50-59 (81%) and 60+ (79%) than the average of 86%.

Why are numbers increasing?

From the few studies conducted to date the growth in the older prison population is generally attributed to:

  • Changes in social and police attitudes to older people
  • Lower tolerance by the courts of deviant behaviour by older people and therefore a greater readiness to imprison them
  • Changes in sentencing policy; “other offences” rose 94% between 1995 and 2005
  • Imprisonment for breach of supervision licence has increased 855% 1995-2005 (from 104 to 993)
  • Imprisonment for bail act offences between 1995 and 2005 has risen 746% from (194 to 1642)
  • An increase in female convictions for drug related crime , especially by foreign nationals
  • An increase in female convictions for violence, potentially linked to female drinking
  • Tougher sentencing in general, especially longer sentences for sex offences and mandatory life sentences
  • The accumulation in prison of older habitual offenders and those ageing through long sentences
  • The impact of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will continue to increase demand for prison places, with an expected increase  of prisoners on Extended Sentences for Public Protection

It is clear that the increases in numbers cited are part of a trend resulting from changes in attitudes within society and the criminal justice system, coupled with an ageing population. However, to date, very few additional resources have been made nationally available to meet the needs of this particular group of offenders, either within or outside of prisons.

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