Director of Communications and External Affairs
Justice Policy Institute
WASHINGTON, DC (November 15, 2018) –
Five years ago, the first Unger was released after Maryland’s highest court ruled jury instructions unconstitutional in a case that ultimately affected 235 people tried before 1981 and sentenced to extremely long sentences, including life in prison with the possibility of parole. As shown in the Justice Policy Institute’s (JPI) new report, The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting: A Case Study in Safely Reducing Long Prison Terms and Saving Taxpayer Dollars, there have now been 188 people safely released to the community, with a projected savings of $185 million for Maryland taxpayers. Many were recommended for parole, but none were released due to Maryland’s governors’ refusal to parole anyone with a life sentence.
“The Ungers are a natural experiment in reentry for the elderly incarcerated people,” said JPI Executive Director Marc Schindler. “We know that most people age out of crime, and that’s been supported by what we’ve seen here; with 188 people released over 5 years, there has been a less than three percent recidivism rate. Policymakers across the country should be heeding these lessons learned, and can feel comfortable in reducing sentence lengths and releasing older individuals who can be safely returned to the community, saving taxpayers millions in the process.”
And the Ungers have benefited their communities since being home, volunteering with organizations or individually mentoring youth in the community to keep them from making the same mistakes the Ungers made when they were young.
Thanks to a five-year investment from the Open Society Institute – Baltimore, the University of Maryland was able to provide enhanced reentry services. But even so the Ungers still faced challenges, “Everybody that I talked to, nobody was asking for a handout. Everybody that I talked to, that was physically capable, they just wanted a job. And a job that their background wouldn’t be held against them,” said Unger member Stanley Mitchell, who was released from prison after serving 37 years.
JPI Director of Research and Policy, Ryan King, said “With enhanced reentry support, releasing the Ungers has posed a negligible threat to safety. Nationally the nine-year re-arrest rate is 43 percent for people 60 or older and 85 percent overall – the Ungers, with an average age of 64, have had a recidivism rate of less than three percent. It’s time we take a serious look at our return on investment for incarcerating a geriatric population with high costs and little risk.”
JPI issued a series of recommendations in the report, including:
- Expand opportunities and incentives for release from prison.
- Release decisions must reflect an individual’s conduct while incarcerated and risk of engaging in future criminal activity.
- States should dedicate funding to establish specialized discharge planning and reentry preparation for people who have served long prison terms.
- Increase the use of compassionate release, geriatric and medical parole.
JPI is grateful to the Abell Foundation for their funding of The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting report, and to the Open Society Institute-Baltimore for their support of JPI’s work on its Unger initiative and parole reform in Maryland.
The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies.