Arrests of pensioners are soaring as an influx of elderly inmates creates new problems for prisons
It is being dubbed the “grey crimewave” or the rise of the “Saga lout”: new statistics reveal that ever higher numbers of pensioners are being arrested and ending up in Britain’s jails.
The prison system, already struggling to cope with the demands of its own ageing population of lifers and long-term inmates, is struggling to cope with a new wave of elderly crooks. But experts are divided over whether or not the growing trend is due to people on low pensions turning to crime through necessity, or simply a tougher attitude by the courts to the elderly in the dock.
While the number of crimes committed by the over-65 age group remains low as a percentage of all crime, the new statistics supplied by police forces show rises of between 15% and 25% in the numbers of pensioners being arrested.
In Derbyshire, for example, 260 over-65s were arrested for serious crimes in 2009, compared with 88 in 2008. The Borough of Croydon has seen a 14% rise in a single year, while Cambridgeshire arrested 142 pensioners last year compared with 119 in 2007. In Scotland the numbers of over-65s charged with drug and weapon crimes more than doubled in four years – up from 36 in 2005 to 80 last year. The nation also saw a leap of 50% in crimes of senior-citizen indecency while in total 5,217 crimes were committed last year by Scottish pensioners.
Welsh forces report a similar rise in aged criminals: they arrested 494 in 2009, 69 of them for sex offences and 65 for theft.
Bill Tupman, a criminologist at Exeter University, believes there is now a far harsher attitude towards the elderly from police and courts. “The trend is definitely on the up, in contrast to what you’d expect with overall crime going down,” he said, adding that changes in the law meant that police and courts were now “less likely to take pity on poor old grandad in the dock”.
“Now, with financial crime, the money and assets can be recovered, so we are far less likely to go easy on the elderly when we can take their cash and their car if we get a conviction,” he said.
Over-60s are now the fastest-growing section of the prison population. There are currently almost 2,500 people in this age group in British prisons, making up 3% of the total, up from 2% in 2003. Kingston prison in Portsmouth has become the first in the country to provide a special “elderly wing” with stairlifts and other adaptations.
But Harry Fletcher of Napo, the probation officers’ union, said the most significant worry was that this category of inmates was last in the queue for support at a time of crippling cutbacks. “There is a total absence of strategy for the ageing criminal population. It’s steadily going up and we’re heading for a logjam of older people. Even when they come out, there are no guidelines or joined-up thinking; the issue is being ignored,” he said.
The “grey crime” trend appears to be an international one. In the Netherlands, where the same steep rise in offending pensioners has been monitored, along with the same pattern of offences, researchers found that a startlingly high percentage of over-60s appearing in court had undiagnosed dementia.
Japan, France and Israel have all commissioned research into the rise of the pensioner-criminal. In August, a report by the French Centre d’Analyse Stratégique said the country’s criminal system would need to be overhauled to handle the growth in older criminals; police would require specific training on how to track “grey crime”, and jails would have to be modified to cater for inmates with Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses.
“The ageing of the population is going to lead to an almost automatic rise in crime by senior citizens,” the report concluded.