Crime is generally a young person’s game, but that hasn’t stopped an ever-growing number of older Americans from breaking the law. Following a decline through most of the ’90s, over the past 10 years arrest rates for those over 50 have shot up 85 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Experts predict that these numbers will continue to climb well into the next decade, as 35 million baby boomers expand America’s graying population from 16 to nearly 25 percent.
Is America on the precipice of a geriatric crime wave?
“The numbers are definitely going to keep going up, no doubt about it,” says Ronald Akers, a criminology professor at the University of Florida. “People are healthier and living longer, which may make crime an attractive option for some older people.”
Geriatric crime isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to America. Several countries, including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and South Korea, have reported substantial increases in the number of elderly arrests, blaming the rises on rapidly growing – and marginalized – elderly populations. But none have seen problems on the scale of Japan, which saw arrest rates of residents over 70 triple from 9,478 to 28,892 between 2000 and 2006.
Most elderly, in America and abroad, are arrested for petty crimes such as shoplifting and drunk driving. But murder among the over-50 crowd climbed more than 15 percent in the last decade. (Music producer Phil Spector was 64 when he killed Lana Clarkson in 2003.) Drug arrests among the elderly tripled during this same period. In April, two sisters, ages 65 and 70, were busted in Stroudsburg, Penn., for selling heroin.
Akers speculates that many elderly arrestees are career criminals who maintain the stamina and strength that crime typically requires. “Late-onset criminality is very rare, and typically financial in nature,” he says.
Author and geriatric expert Michael Brogden says late-onset criminality can flourish under some conditions, namely boredom. “With more able-bodied persons no longer gainfully employed, older people may be less inhibited in erring into crime,” Brogden wrote in his book, Crime, Abuse and the Elderly. “Older people, freed from past conventions, are now able to indulge as novitiates in crime.”
Criminologist Ron Aday, whose previous research on elderly crime is widely cited, revisits the issue in his forthcoming book on elderly male and female offenders. He was surprised to learn that elderly arrests across crime categories are on a 10-year upswing. “As a percentage of arrests, these are significant increases,” he says. “And women have certainly seen an increase in deviant behavior.”
Brogden contends that the increases, as significant as they seem, are artificially inflated, due to practices that have bridged the reported crime and actual crime rates. More elderly are being charged with sex offenses that occurred years earlier. More are prosecuted for abusive behavior against spouses and children. There is less tolerance for minor crimes committed by elderly people, like shoplifting. And police more frequently arrest people for minor offenses stemming from disputes between neighbors, which are common among the stay-at-home elderly.
Brogden also notes that during hard economic times, crimes-of-survival tend to increase, as in the case of an 85-year-old Kentucky woman arrested in 2005 after selling prescription pain meds for food money. During that statewide crackdown on illegal prescription drug sales, more than 40 people over 60 were brought up on charges.
Aday says crime among the elderly will continue to increase, perhaps redefining what criminologists refer to as aging-out. After 30, the likelihood that a person will commit a major offense decreases significantly each subsequent year. But if 50 is the new 40, and 60 is the new 50, will fewer criminals age-out of crime, especially if they’re able-bodied and bored?
“The aging-out process will continue,” says Aday. “The question is: Will it abate by 50, or will there be a continuation of people committing crimes well into their 60s? I would expect an increase.”