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The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting: A Case Study in Safely Reducing Long Prison Terms and Saving Taxpayer Dollars

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In Category : Place Based Reform, Reentry, Long Prison Terms

The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting

A landmark court case, Unger v. Maryland, offers powerful lessons for policymakers and stakeholders interested in tackling mass incarceration. The 2012 case centered on remedying improper jury instructions and applied to a cohort of people who had been sentenced prior to 1981. The decision resulted in the potential release of 235 people from Maryland prisons who had served more than 30 years, and their release story created a natural experiment from which other states can learn. What makes the Unger decision particularly unique is that private philanthropy, through the Open Society Institute–Baltimore, provided specialized reentry programming to be made available to those individuals upon release. In the six years since the decision, we have learned a number of important lessons. These include:

  • We can safely release people who have committed a serious, violent offense.
  • Public safety will not be greatly impacted when rethinking our approach to violence.
  • We need to emphasize the importance of reentry.
  • Incarcerating the geriatric population is associated with increased costs with little public safety benefit.
  • The Unger group and others sentenced to long prison terms were deeply impacted by racial discrimination.

As of January, 2019, 193 members of the Unger class have come home.



NEW short film, The Ungers: A Matter of Time

A new short film by Wide Angle Youth Media introduces us to the Ungers – geriatric lifers released under the 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling, Unger v. Maryland. This examines the issues of long term sentences, geriatric parole and what it means to be a part of this unique case study in geriatric reentry. The film also interviews key reform experts including JPI’s State Based Strategist, Keith Wallington.

Additional Resources

Full text of Unger v. Maryland decision

Previous Media

The Ungers, Righting a Miscarriage of Justice, CBS Sunday Morning, 2017, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-ungers-righting-a-miscarriage-of-justice/

More than 130 Ungers Adjust to Freedom After Court Ruling, NPR All Things Considered, 2016,  https://www.npr.org/2016/02/17/467118226/more-than-130-maryland-lifers-adjust-to-freedom-after-court-ruling

From a Life Term to Life on the Outside – When Aging Felons are Freed, NPR All Things Considered, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/02/18/467057603/from-a-life-term-to-life-on-the-outside-when-aging-felons-are-freed

Seeking a Second Chance for Criminals Serving a Life Sentence in Maryland, Washington Post, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/seeking-a-second-chance-for-criminals-serving-life-sentences-in-maryland/2015/02/25/6f00fd64-b79a-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html

Reports and Resources

The Right to A Fair Trial: Unger v. State, OSI-Baltimore, https://www.osibaltimore.org/2014/06/the-right-to-a-fair-trial-unger-v-state/

The Right to A Fair Trial: Coming Home, OSI-Baltimore, https://www.osibaltimore.org/2014/06/the-right-to-a-fair-trial-coming-home/

A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons, Urban Institute, https://apps.urban.org/features/long-prison-terms/intro.html

Aging Behind Bars: Trends and Implications of Graying Prisoners in the Federal Prison System, Urban Institute, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/33801/413222-Aging-Behind-Bars-Trends-and-Implications-of-Graying-Prisoners-in-the-Federal-Prison-System.PDF

The High Cost of Low Risk, The Osborne Association, http://www.osborneny.org/resources/the-high-costs-of-low-risk/

Reports, Research and Policy Papers, Releasing Aging People in Prison, http://rappcampaign.com/reports/

Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States, FAMM, https://famm.org/our-work/compassionate-release/

Compassionate Release in the States: Maryland, FAMM https://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/Maryland_Final.pdf

It’s About Time: Aging Prisoners, Increasing Costs, and Geriatric Release, Vera Institute of Justice, https://www.vera.org/publications/its-about-time-aging-prisoners-increasing-costs-and-geriatric-release

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences, Sentencing Project, https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/still-life-americas-increasing-use-life-long-term-sentences/

Old Age Behind Bars, Human Rights Watch,  https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/usprisons0112webwcover_0.pdf

Aging Inmates: A Curated Collection of Links, The Marshall Project, https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/251-aging-inmates

At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly, ACLU, https://www.aclu.org/americas-expense-mass-incarceration-elderly

State Medical and Geriatric Parole Laws, National Conference of State Legislatures, http://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/state-medical-and-geriatric-parole-laws.aspx

Elderly Inmates Burden State Prisons, PEW, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2016/03/17/elderly-inmates-burden-state-prisons

Geriatrics and the Legal System, The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, http://jaapl.org/content/45/2/208

Medical Parole and Aging Prisoners: A Qualitative Study, NIH, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28358232

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