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Justice Policy Institute: The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting - A Case Study in Safely Reducing Long Prison Terms and Saving Taxpayer Dollars, 2018

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NOVEMBER, 2018

1

Acknowledgments
THIS REPORT IS THE RESULT OF THE COLLABORATIVE AND CUMULATIVE EFFORTS OF SEVERAL
ORGANIZATIONS AND INDIVIDUALS OVER SEVERAL YEARS. THE “UNGER STORY” WOULD NOT BE
POSSIBLE WITHOUT THE VISION OF UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND (UMB) CAREY SCHOOL OF LAW
PROFESSORS MICHAEL MILLEMANN AND JEROME DEISE, THE GUIDANCE AND SUPERVISION OF CLINICAL
SOCIAL WORKER REBECCA BOWMAN-RIVAS, AND A FIVE-YEAR INVESTMENT FROM OPEN SOCIETY
INSTITUTE-BALTIMORE.
THIS PARTNERSHIP SUPPORTED THE CREATION OF “THE UNGER CLINIC,” THE CLINICAL LAW PROGRAM
THAT FIRST DEVELOPED AND THEN IMPLEMENTED COMPREHENSIVE RE-ENTRY PLANS FOR THOSE
WHO WERE ELIGIBLE FOR RELIEF UNDER UNGER V. MARYLAND (2012). THE WORK OF THE CLINIC PAVED
THE WAY FOR THE SUCCESSES WE HAVE SEEN OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, RESULTING IN THE SAFE
RELEASE AND REENTRY OF ALMOST 200 INDIVIDUALS BACK INTO THE COMMUNITY.
OSI-BALTIMORE FURTHER SUPPORTED PROFESSOR MILLEMANN AND HIS SOCIAL WORK COLLEAGUES
IN WRITING UP THE UNGER EXPERIENCE SO IT COULD BE USED TO LEVERAGE CHANGE MORE BROADLY
WITH OLDER INCARCERATED INDIVIDUALS. TO AUGMENT THE UNGER STORY, OSI-BALTIMORE
COMMISSIONED DR. JAMES AUSTIN TO CONDUCT A FISCAL ANALYSIS DOCUMENTING THE SAVINGS
FROM RELEASING THE UNGERS TO THE COMMUNITY.
THE INFORMATION COMPILED BY PROFESSOR MILLEMANN AND DR. AUSTIN COMPLEMENT THE
INFORMATION THAT THE JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE (JPI) WAS ABLE TO COLLECT AND DOCUMENT WITH
A GRANT FROM THE ABELL FOUNDATION, INCLUDING QUALITATIVE INTERVIEWS OF THE UNGERS, AS
WELL AS THE WORK JPI HAS DONE WITH MARYLAND-BASED ADVOCATES, LEGISLATORS AND PAROLE
REFORM EXPERTS TO CRAFT THE POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS IN THIS REPORT.
SUPPORT FROM THE ABELL FOUNDATION HAS ALSO ALLOWED JPI TO INCLUDE STANLEY MITCHELL, AN
UNGER RELEASEE, AS PART OF THE PROJECT TEAM. STANLEY HAS CONTRIBUTED SIGNIFICANTLY TO THE
PROJECT, FROM FACILITATING INTERVIEWS OF THE OTHER UNGERS TO PROVIDING HIS PERSPECTIVE
AND EXPERTISE IN HOW MARYLAND’S PAROLE SYSTEM WORKS (OR FAILS TO WORK). FINALLY, JPI IS
GRATEFUL FOR THE PARTNERSHIP THE ABELL FOUNDATION HAS FACILITATED WITH WIDE ANGLE YOUTH
MEDIA (WAYM). FOUNDED IN 2000 BY AN OSI-BALTIMORE COMMUNITY FELLOW, WAYM IS DEVELOPING
A VIDEO THAT TELLS THE POWERFUL STORY OF SOME OF THE UNGERS.

THE JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE IS DEDICATED TO REDUCING THE USE OF INCARCERATION AND THE
JUSTICE SYSTEM BY PROMOTING RESEARCH-BASED, FAIR, AND EFFECTIVE POLICIES. THE JUSTICE
POLICY INSTITUTE ENVISIONS A SOCIETY WITH SAFE, EQUITABLE AND HEALTHY COMMUNITIES; JUST
2 EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS TO SOCIAL PROBLEMS; AND THE USE OF INCARCERATION ONLY AS A LAST
AND

RESORT.

Table of Contentsk2

OPPORTUNITY FOR REFORM

5

THE IMPACT OF LONG PRISON TERMS AND
AGING ON MARYLAND PRISONS

9

UNGER V. MARYLAND

9

WHO IS THE UNGER GROUP?

13

WHAT WAS DIFFERENT FOR THE UNGER GROUP?

17

ENHANCED REENTRY SERVICES SUPPORTED
THE UNGER GROUP AND RESULTED
IN LOW RECIDIVISM RATE

17

RELEASING THE UNGER GROUP SAVED MILLIONS
OF TAXPAYER DOLLARS

19 THIS PROBLEM IS NOT UNIQUE TO MARYLAND
21

HOW WE CAN IMPROVE REENTRY:
THE UNGER EXPERIENCE

24 WHILE THEY RECEIVED BETTER REENTRY
PLANNING OVERALL, MANY UNGER
GROUP MEMBERS IDENTIFIED CHALLENGES
25 WHAT OTHERS CAN LEARN FROM THE UNGER EXPERIENCE
IN IMPLEMENTING MORE EFFECTIVE PAROLE POLICIES AND
PRACTICES
28 OTHER STATES HAVE MEDICAL OR GERIATRIC PAROLE, BUT
UNDER VERY LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES
29 POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
33 CONCLUSION
1

After nearly 40 years of sustained prison population growth, states have taken steps
over the last decade to push back against mass incarceration. Lawmakers and the
public alike awoke to a wasteful system that costs billions of dollars and does little
to deliver on promises of public safety, while disproportionately impacting people of
color and destroying the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Some states,
like California and New York, took deliberate policy and practice steps to reduce
the number of people incarcerated and have reaped substantial benefits. Maryland
has joined that list in recent years; in 2017, the state led the nation in reducing the
incarceration rate, experiencing a 10 percent decline in its prison population.1 Since
2007 the prison population has declined by 19 percent, and the crime rate has
declined by 33 percent.2
The recent decline in the number of people in Maryland prisons, coupled with
sensible policy reforms intended to expand treatment options and strengthen
community supervision, offers a reason to celebrate. However, there is much
work that remains to be done. There have been recent policy reforms focused
on long sentences through Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act (2016), including
improvements to medical and geriatric parole. However, they were limited in
scope, lowering the age threshold for geriatric parole from 65 to 60 and excluding
those convicted of a sex offense. Since its implementation, it has been infrequently
used. The data in Maryland, and across the country, point to a system increasingly
defined by people serving prison terms in excess of 20 years. Extreme sentencing
coupled with either restrictive release policies or the outright abolition of parole
lead to a “stacking effect” by which people serve ever increasing terms in prison
with diminishing opportunities for release. These policies largely target those
incarcerated for violent offenses.
Current sentencing policy targets harsher and longer sentences to prevent crime
through incapacitation. Consequently, this emphasis has led to explosive prison
growth.3 The number of people serving life sentences is four times what it was in
1984—currently imposed on one in every seven individuals in a U.S. prison.
Over the years we have normalized life sentences. As the death penalty became
more controversial, decision makers relied on life sentences.4 Maryland ranks
amongst the highest in the country with a 6 percent increase in overall life
sentences since 2000.5 These increases will continue to impact the geriatric
population. As of 2015, Maryland’s prison population of individuals 55-years-old
and older doubled over the last decade to 1,875.6 While 55-years-old may not be
considered geriatric in the general population, decades in prison age the body
faster, leading to more health ailments at a younger age.7
For policymakers in Maryland—and across the U.S.—to significantly reduce
the growing and costly prison population, reform to long sentences for people
sentenced for violent crimes must be addressed. Although Maryland has been
2

celebrated for shrinking its prison population by 10 percent, its incarcerated
population continues to include many who could be safely released, which would
also result in substantial cost savings for taxpayers. This includes almost 3,200
geriatric individuals who remain incarcerated for sentencing decisions that were
made decades ago.

OPPORTUNITY FOR REFORM

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: The Unger group was convicted of homicide and
rape; however, after serving decades in prison they have safely been
reintegrated into the community, arguing for a reconsideration of
policies that continue to lock people up based solely on the severity
of their underlying offense.
Public safety will not be greatly impacted when rethinking
our approach to violence: The research is clear that individuals
generally age out of crime, and the Unger group is no different.
As of today, they have posted a less than 1 percent recidivism
rate, a fraction of the overall Maryland rate of 40 percent.

We need to emphasize the importance of reentry: The success of the Unger group
has been the direct result of an ambitious reentry effort. The University of Maryland
began its reentry approach while the Unger group was still inside the facility and
followed through with individualized treatment and services in the community.

3

Incarcerating the geriatric population is associated with
increased costs with little public safety benefit: There are
thousands of geriatric-aged individuals still in the prison system,
many with the same profile as those in the Unger group. Maryland
could save an estimated $100 million in the first year if it reduced
its low-risk geriatric population. at the
The Unger group and others sentenced to long prison terms were
deeply impacted by racial discrimination: Almost 90 percent of
the Unger group are black, despite only 18 percent of Maryland’s
population being black at the time of their convictions. Like today,
the U.S. was facing a deep racially divided country at the time
when many individuals were sentenced to long-term sentences,
increasing the racial disparity within the system.

The practice of extreme sentencing has been justified in the name of public safety,
but the evidence suggests those motivations have been misplaced. Maryland can
significantly reduce the size of its prison population, and the impact on its budget,
without negatively affecting public safety by rethinking parole strategies, particularly
for those people who have served long prison terms. The current approach to parole
is too heavily focused on the offense. Too often, the state fails to appropriately take
into consideration a research-based assessment of the risk of reoffending when
making release decisions.
Moreover, current law requires all parole recommendations for those sentenced
to life to pass through the governor’s desk, a practice that has resulted in only one
person having been granted parole since 1995. The consistent denial of parole is not
a public safety decision, but one that has been politically motivated and continued
across administrations. Former Governor Parris Glendening, the originator of the
practice, has denounced the “absolute nature” of the policy.8 By pivoting away from
an approach that focuses solely on the crime committed to one that assesses the
current risk of re-offending, Maryland can lead by example, safely reducing its prison population and cost to taxpayers.

4

THE IMPACT OF LONG PRISON TERMS AND
AGING ON MARYLAND PRISONS

M

aryland currently imprisons nearly 19,000 people, which reflects a decline
of 19 percent since 2007. As mentioned above, the recent decline in the
Maryland prison population has been celebrated by leaders and used as
evidence that the state is making strides toward a more targeted and effective
criminal justice system. However, a deeper dive into the data reveals that the
decline has been driven exclusively by reforms in policy and practice for nonviolent offenses. This limits the potential impact on the overall prison population.
In fact, increasing time served, particularly for violent offenses, continues
to grow sharply and threatens to obscure any recent gains in tackling mass
incarceration.

Long Prison Terms Increasingly a Driver of the Maryland Prison
Population
Maryland spends more than $1 billion a year on its prison system,9 with an increasing
portion of that budget dedicated to locking up people who have already been
incarcerated for decades. Time served in Maryland prisons for nonviolent offenses
has stayed relatively flat since 2000, hovering around two years. However, time
served across all offense types in Maryland prisons has grown by more than 20
percent during that same period. A recent study by the Urban Institute found that
Maryland had the fifth highest average time served in prison.10
Extreme sentencing and restrictive parole release policies have resulted in an even
starker contrast at the upper-bound of time served. The average time served for
the bottom 90 percent of the prison population increased by 14 percent, or about 5
months. Meanwhile, the average time served for those persons serving the top 10
percent of sentences has grown 36 percent, or almost 7 years.
The population share of individuals serving 25 or more years in Maryland prisons
has increased 211 percent between 2000 and 2012 and 66 percent for those serving
20–25 years. People who have served at least 20 years in prison now account for
more than 7 percent of the population, or 1,577 individuals. About one in six people in
a Maryland prison had served at least a decade in 2012 (3,857 individuals). This was a
23 percent (3,128 individuals) increase since 2000.

5

INCREASE IN TIME SERVED SINCE 2000
TOP 10%
BOTTOM 90%

7 YEARS
5 MONTHS

The impact of long prisons terms “stacking” up in Maryland prisons is felt most
acutely among communities of color. Due to racially-charged practices that are
inherent in our criminal justice system, the demographic of Maryland’s incarcerated
population is 70 percent Black.11 Nearly eight in 10 people who are currently serving
the longest prison terms in Maryland are Black, many of whom were sentenced as a
young adult before the age of 25 and are now 55 years old or older.
Of all people sentenced before their 25th birthday, serving at least a decade, two
out of five are a Black man.12 Even though we know people have a high probability
of aging out of crime, we continue to subject many to long sentences. Continuously
taking young Black men out of their community hinders their economic stability, and
strains family and community relationships.

Long Prison Terms Result in a Rapidly Growing (and Costly) Population
of Aging Prisoners
The effect of imprisonment on people’s health means that individuals in prison
experience the impacts of aging earlier than the general public. A study in
Pennsylvania concluded that incarcerated individuals with an average age of 57
had similar health ailments to men in the general public with an average age of 72.
And in many cases, those serving long sentences have worse health ailments than
similarly-aged individuals outside the criminal justice system. This greatly increases
their cost of confinement. The stress of incarceration, decades of poor nutrition,
inadequate health care, and the damaging effects of a pre-incarceration lifestyle
can speed up the effects of aging.13
For this reason, the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare and the U.S.
Department of Justice1 defines the baseline age of “geriatric” for people who are
incarcerated as 55 years old and older, whereas the United States Census defined
being “geriatric” for the general public as people over 65.14
Across the country, the increasing size of the aging prison population has been in
the making for decades. In 1995, there were 32,600 incarcerated individuals over
55 years old; by 2010 that number had increased 283 percent to 124,900. With the
United States’ continued commitment to long sentences, it is estimated that by 2030
6

1	
Maryland law defines those 60 or older as geriatric for the purposes of geriatric parole
eligibility.

7

that number will have increased by 220
percent to more than 400,000 geriatrics
incarcerated.15
Maryland’s prison system incarcerates
an increasing number of people of
geriatric age. Currently, there are
approximately 3,150 incarcerated
individuals over 50 years old, with 834
over 60.16 This population will continue
to grow as 2,400 people are currently
serving life with parole sentences.
Of those people serving the longest
prison terms (i.e., the top 10 percent
of time served), 77 percent are Black,
one-third are over 55, and half were
incarcerated before 25 years of age. The racial disparity in Maryland is by no means
unique. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that of those incarcerated in the U.S.
in 2016 at a geriatric age, 30 percent are Black,17 compared to a 2016 estimate than
less than 10 percent of the total U.S. geriatric population was Black. 18
The growth in the size of the geriatric prison population is not indicative of their risk
to public safety should they be released, but rather reflects a combination of policy
decisions resulting in long sentences and restrictive parole release policies.
Focusing policy reforms on people of geriatric age in prison is an effective way to
safely reduce the prison population. Research indicates they are the least likely to
pose a risk to public safety. Criminal behavior typically peaks at 17 years old and
then drops as an individual develops into adulthood.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention showed that only 8
percent of youth engaged in violent crime persisted in offending, while for 83
percent that initial encounter was the only criminal episode in their lives.
Unless Maryland addresses the sentencing and parole practices driving the growth
of the geriatric population, the state’s aging prison population will continue to
increase, as will the cost of their incarceration. This requires decision makers to shift
the conversation of criminal justice reform priorities to those serving long prison
terms. Fortunately, a landmark court case in Maryland provides a blueprint for
safely and smartly reducing length of stay, mitigating the harmful impacts of mass
incarceration, and saving taxpayer money.

8

UNGER V. MARYLAND

T

his brief provides an overview of a group of individuals who are typically
forgotten: those who are incarcerated for a violent offense and have
served extremely long prison sentences. This population is known as the
Unger group, named for the case that resulted in their release. One hundred
and eighty-eight of the Unger group have been released since a 2012 Maryland
appellate court decision that found the jury instructions used at their trials
were constitutionally flawed. All of these individuals had served extremely long
terms and would have otherwise likely died in prison.19 Instead, 188 people have
been released to the community and, thanks to effective reentry support, very
few have reoffended. Over the last five years, the Unger group has provided
evidence in Maryland that releasing older individuals—regardless of their initial
committing offense—can be successful, particularly if provided adequate
support.
With the partnership of philanthropy, the legal community, and organizations run
by formerly incarcerated people, the Unger group received enhanced reentry
support. The reentry model resulted in extraordinarily low recidivism rates as well
as significant savings for Maryland taxpayers. Despite the success, there continues
to be laws and policies in Maryland and across the country that result in too many
people being locked up in prisons and held far beyond any meaningful public
safety benefit. A look at the Unger story provides evidence of how states can more
effectively approach the incarcerated aging population.

WHO IS THE UNGER GROUP?

T

he Unger group is a cohort of formerly incarcerated individuals convicted
of violent crimes before 1981. Almost all were sentenced to life with
parole, and subsequently became eligible for release after decades
of incarceration due to a lawsuit and related court ruling. As a result of
unconstitutional convictions, 235 people tried before 1981 and still in prison
were eligible for retrial. Due to case evidence and witness testimony being
at least 30 years old, many prosecutors negotiated conditional releases with
probation time. 20 As a result, since 2012, 188 people have been released, 21 the
first as early as December 17, 2012, with a very low recidivism rate. The Unger
9

group is a natural experiment on how states can safely reduce their aging prison
population regardless of their committing offense.
Most of the Unger group were incarcerated in their 20s. At their point of release,
the members of the Unger group ranged from 51 to 85 years old, with an average
age of 64.22 Eight in 10 members of the Unger group were Black, and only one was
a woman. More than 80 percent of the Unger group were convicted of murder and
16 percent were convicted for rape. They were incarcerated for an average of 39
years.23
Many of the Unger group were recommended for parole, but due to the Maryland
parole process requiring the governor’s approval for people serving life sentences,
they were never released. Across 16 years and various leadership changes,
Republican and Democrat, parole of a life sentence was approved only once.24 This
was the result of a policy Governor Parris Glendening announced in 1995. Following
a high-profile crime, he proclaimed that “life means life” and ignored the possibility
of parole, setting a precedent that has been followed by all Maryland governors
since.
Prior to this change, the average period served
on a life with the possibility of parole sentence
in Maryland was about 20 years. 25 Until the 2012
ruling, this practice rendered the Unger group’s
sentences as a life without the possibility of parole.
Governor Glendening has since stated that his
statement and decision in 1995 were a mistake
based on the politics of the time. He has also
stated his belief that legislators should remove the
governor from the parole process in Maryland.

The Unger Group Faced Racial
Discrimination in the Justice System
Nearly 90 percent of the Unger group is Black
even though Black people comprised only 18 percent of Maryland’s population
at the time of the convictions.26 This comparison reflects the significant racial bias
in the Maryland criminal justice system. For example, during many of the Unger
group’s initial court proceedings, judges utilized “key men,” friends of the judges who
nominated the entire pool of possible jurors for criminal trials. In 1969, the last year
this jury selection system was legal, Black people comprised only 4 percent of the
jurors.27 The result was that most of the Unger group were convicted at trial in cases
where the judges, prosecutors, and juries were typically all white.
10

The experiences of the Unger group represent a pattern of excessively harsh
sentences toward Black people. Maryland’s first Black judge, Joseph Howard, found
that in rape cases, convictions were more common and sentences were significantly
harsher if the defendant was Black. The timing of the convictions also coincided
with a particularly racially divisive period in American history. Democratic nominee
George Wallace won Maryland white voters in the 1964 primaries with campaign
slogans such as “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
These ideals embodied a culture that potentially influenced the convictions of Black
people in the 1960s, including the Unger group.28

Long Sentences Imposed on Populations Like the Unger Group Impact
Prison Life
Over decades in prison, up to 60 years,29 the members of the Unger group faced
poor prison conditions and were frequently denied prison programming. There were
few meaningful rehabilitation opportunities because only those with five or fewer
years left on their sentence were eligible for work or apprenticeship programs. This
prevented those with life sentences from taking advantage of these opportunities.30
When made available, much of the work and recreational activity was too physically
demanding for older individuals. There is also a dearth of programming for the aging
population being released, who have different needs than younger individuals.31
This is problematic because programming has been shown to reduce recidivism
and be cost-effective. The RAND Corporation reported that educational programs in
prisons reduce the odds of returning to prison by 43 percent.32 Those who join work
release programs reduce their odds of rearrest by 16 percent.33 It is critical to extend
these resources to all incarcerated individuals, including the geriatric population
serving long sentences, regardless of their release date.

Developing A Reentry Strategy for Long Prison Terms
Due to the lack of programming for individuals with long sentences, it is especially
challenging to maintain educational and employment achievements. An analysis
of Maryland’s parole population by the Urban Institute found that on average, the
returning population has between a sixth and eighth grade reading level and less
than half have a GED or high school diploma. Securing employment post-release
raises challenges as one typically loses work skills and workplace connections while
incarcerated.34 Due to their age, some employment sectors are no longer suitable,
shrinking already limited options.35
Those leaving confinement also face an overburdened parole system. About
89 percent of people released from Maryland prisons are under some sort of
11

12

community supervision, with many subject to parole restrictions. Parole officers
can oversee hundreds of cases that range from simple to complicated with a wide
range of risk profiles.36 Parole officers are frequently assessed by the amount of
contact they have with their clients. Although more contact may seem appropriate,
these frequent meetings during work hours make it difficult to maintain a job and
ultimately make it more likely that a parole violation will occur.
Additionally, returning citizens typically face gaps in their mental and physical health
care. More than half of the state prison population has at least one symptom of
serious mental illness,37 and many others suffer from physical impairments that are
exacerbated by age.38 In many cases, returning citizens lose their access to care
upon leaving prison and face the challenge of finding their own affordable health
care.39
In a 2015 survey done by the Justice Policy Institute, formerly incarcerated
individuals noted their biggest concerns were unemployment, finding housing,
obtaining job skills, drug addiction, mental health support, repairing family
relationships, and obtaining their GED.40 Those who return to Baltimore City,
including 60 percent of the Ungers,41 face high unemployment rates and a low
median household income. These are all factors that create obstacles to reentry and
drive recidivism.42

WHAT WAS DIFFERENT FOR THE UNGER GROUP?

D

espite the systematic neglect, the Unger group was released with virtually
no negative impact on public safety. This was, in large part, due to a
reentry model developed and delivered through a philanthropic-funded
reentry partnership of The Open Society Institute–Baltimore, The University
of Maryland Carey School of Law: Clinical Law Office and Law and Social
Work Services, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, and the Maryland
Restorative Justice Initiative. Providing successful reentry services comes with
associated costs—in this case, they were privately funded. The funding stream
should be provided through the state budget, as adequate reentry services are a
necessary ingredient to a successful transition back to the community.
Recognizing the challenges of reentry, the Clinical Law Program of the University of
Maryland and the School of Social Work developed a reentry strategy specifically
for the Unger group that utilized a combination of lawyers and social workers. The
strategy included services targeting trauma, stress, and the emotional impairment
13

caused by having been incarcerated. The social workers also assisted with obtaining
identification documents, benefits, and medical care.
There were multiple stages of assistance. The first two stages were prior to
release:
First Stage: Create an individualized release plan for how best to address each
barrier. The release plans contained relevant information they would need,
including how to obtain identification cards, SSI benefits, food stamps, housing
vouchers, and paperwork for continued medication.43
Second Stage: Coordinate with institutional staff, family members, and service
providers in preparation for release. The law students provided pre-court
briefings with family and friends and developed packets of relevant information
about useful community resources. Prior to release, there was a review of all
information in the individualized release plan to assure accuracy in paperwork
and medication.
The third stage followed their release:
Third Stage: The social workers developed a strategy for successful reentry
during the first 90 days following release. The post-release stage aimed to
provide the individuals with support, cultivate independence, and create high
expectations. As part of the process, the social workers conducted mentor
meetings, life skill trainings, and technology instruction. They continued
assistance to help the individuals obtain identification documents and helped
with their medical and mental health appointments. There were workshops to
provide job training and personal budgeting education. These services can also
extend to financial assistance. In the most extreme cases when an individual did
not have money or was waiting for benefits, funding was allocated to help pay for
housing, medical care, transportation, and/or groceries.
Any follow-up case management service was then tied to an individual’s needs
and circumstances of his or her reentry experience. Those who had family support
typically required less assistance than those without family or those with serious
mental or medical health issues. To determine the correct dosage of support, the
138 members of the Unger group who required assistance were divided into seven
tiers:44

14

LEVEL
OF SERVICE

DESCRIPTION

NUMBER OF
ENGAGED
CLIENTS

TIER I

INCLUDES THE MOST COMPLEX AND HIGHEST NEED CLIENTS. IN MANY CASES,
IT INCLUDES EXTREME MEDICAL OR HOSPICE SUPPORT. INTENSIVE EDUCATION
ON LIFE AND SOCIAL SKILL DEVELOPMENT WAS IMPERATIVE DUE TO JUVENILE
INCARCERATION. TIER I INCLUDES THOSE IN NEED OF ACCESSIBLE HOUSING,
SPECIALIZED CARE, OR SUPPORTIVE HOUSING/NURSING CARE.

11

TIER II

INCLUDES THOSE THAT REQUIRE EXTENSIVE HANDS-ON CASE MANAGEMENT FOR
A PROLONGED PERIOD AFTER RELEASE FOR ONE OR TWO MAJOR CHALLENGES.
TYPICALLY FACE FINANCIAL CHALLENGES AND DO NOT HAVE THE FAMILY
STRUCTURE OR OTHER COMMUNITY SUPPORT TO ASSIST THEM.

20

TIER III

INCLUDES THOSE THAT REQUIRE LOW LEVELS OF ASSISTANCE AS THEY CONTINUE
TO HAVE FAMILY OR COMMUNITY SUPPORT. CASE MANAGEMENT’S PRIORITY IS
MAINLY CONNECTING THE INDIVIDUAL TO THE APPROPRIATE REENTRY SERVICES
TO CREATE INDEPENDENCY FROM THEIR FAMILY.

31

TIER IV

INCLUDES THOSE THAT REQUIRE LOW LEVELS OF ASSISTANCE AS FAMILY IS ABLE TO
PROVIDE LONG-TERM FINANCIAL SUPPORT, AS WELL AS HOUSING.

37

TIER V

INCLUDES THOSE THAT HAVE VERY LIMITED NEEDS REQUIRED UPON RELEASE, AND
PRIMARILY REFERRED OUT TO OTHER COMMUNITY RESOURCES THAT ASSIST WITH
REENTRY.

5

TIER VI

INCLUDES THOSE FOR WHOM THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND IS AVAILABLE FOR
CRISIS SUPPORT AND MONTHLY CHECK-INS.

11

TIER VII

INCLUDES THOSE WHO WERE EITHER RELEASED INTO COUNTIES WERE THE
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND DID NOT PROVIDE SERVICES, OR DID NOT REQUEST
SUPPORT UPON RELEASE.

23

15

16

ENHANCED REENTRY SERVICES SUPPORTED
THE UNGER GROUP AND RESULTED
IN LOW RECIDIVISM RATE

A

fter decades in prison, the Unger group was challenged with returning to a community
that had moved on without them. For the first time, many members of the Unger group
experienced the advancements of 21st century technology and had to assimilate into
a society that was very different than the one they had left. However, with the assistance of
the University of Maryland’s supporting partnership, they accomplished success far beyond
most returning citizens. Recidivism for the Unger group is extremely low. Out of the 188
people released, only five have returned to prison for a violation of parole or a new crime.
This translates into an overall recidivism rate of under 3 percent. 45 This is much lower than the
40 percent rate of recidivism for all persons released from Maryland prisons.
The Unger group is a small sample size, but with the right type of support, they outperformed
the broader prison population upon release. This is likely due to the fact that they were given
outstanding reentry support coupled with the reality that they are part of an aging demographic
with generally low recidivism rates. For example, New York reported a 7 percent reconviction
rate after release for those between 50 and 64 years old and only a 4 percent rate for those
65 or older. Virginia reported a 1 percent reconviction rate for those 60 and older.46 The rate
of reconviction for the Unger group was under two percent. Another measure of public safety
is arrest rates. The Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked the rates of rearrests in the nine years
following an individual’s release. For those aged 60 or older, the rearrest rate was 43 percent as
compared to an overall rate of 85 percent.47 For the Unger group, the rate of rearrest was slightly
over two percent.

RELEASING THE UNGER GROUP SAVED MILLIONS
OF TAXPAYER DOLLARS

D

ue to the conditions of living decades in confinement without sufficient health care,
the Unger group’s health deteriorated faster than the general population. Some of
the health concerns include impaired movement, mental illness, and increased risk
of a major disease. This is not unique to the Unger group and is likely the case for the great
majority who have served long sentences—including the 3,000 others over 50 years old in
Maryland. 48
A recent analysis by Dr. James Austin of JFA Associates found that the release of the Unger group
17

will save millions of dollars, which could potentially be reinvested.49 Releasing the
Unger group resulted in a projected savings of $185 million for Maryland taxpayers.
At the time of release, the average age of the Unger cohort was 64 years old.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the life expectancy for
the Unger group would be 81 years old, which would mean an additional 18 years in
prison had they not been released.50
According to Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services
(DPSCS), the per diem cost of incarceration is approximately $46,000 per year,
which includes a $7,956 allocation for medical and mental health services. However,
including the additional resources the aging population demands, the cost of
imprisoning the Unger group is even higher.
Based on estimates that 34 percent of the total health care related costs in the
United States is accounted for by individuals 65 and over, and assuming the
percentage of health care costs to the general public is the same for the Unger
population, the variable health care share for the Unger group is $18,361 per year.
This increases the annual cost to incarcerate an Unger group member to $53,832.51 2

The Associated Costs of Reentry Services are a Fraction of
Incarceration
As of 2016, the University of Maryland’s program has served 138 members of the
Unger group. Not everyone requires the same resources, since they returned
home needing varying levels of support. While the services were privately funded,
if a similar approach was offered to all people released from Maryland prisons,
the government’s annualized cost would be an estimated $6,000 per individual, a
fraction of the cost for continued incarceration.
To be clear, not everyone in the geriatric population may be suitable for immediate
release because some may still pose a risk to public safety. However, a previous
analysis of people 55 years old or older released from Maryland prisons in 2013
found that only 1 in 5 individuals returned to prison and only 7 percent came back for
a new crime.52 If we apply this 80 percent success rate to assume that 4 in 5 geriatric
individuals still in Maryland prisons could be released safely, taxpayers would save
an estimated $120 million in the first year, and more than a billion in a decade.

2	
According to Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the annual
cost per incarcerated individual is $45,876. That includes funding for food services, facility costs,
as well as medical and health care services, which are $10,405 on average. Medical and healthcare
services are the largest portion, accounting for $7,956 per individual. However, with the increasing
cost of the aging population, we estimated the medical and healthcare services to increase to
$15,912. Therefore, the full variable cost for that population is $18,361, increasing the annual cost for
the geriatric population to $53,832.
18

THIS PROBLEM IS NOT UNIQUE TO MARYLAND

E

ach state is experiencing a growing aging population in their prison
system. With the expanding costs associated with serving this population,
tax dollars around the country are too often spent on unnecessary
confinement for geriatric individuals who pose little threat to public safety. Using
a similar set of assumptions from the Maryland analysis, JPI estimated the cost
breakdown for their health care compared to the rest of the prison population.
This analysis demonstrates that states would be well-served by rethinking
reentry and shifting wasteful prison resources to the development of sound
reentry supports for this population, as seen in Maryland.

STATE

TOTAL
HEALTH CARE
BUDGET IN
2015

TOTAL
HEALTH
CARE COST
PER INDIVIDUAL
OVER 55

TOTAL
HEALTH CARE
COST PER INDIVIDUAL 55
AND YOUNGER

ALASKA

$43,412,600

$16,408.52

$5,620.91

ALABAMA

$100,785,027

$7,330.92

$2,511.28

ARKANSAS

$73,508,037

$9,487.43

$3,250.02

ARIZONA

$148,662,395

$7,998.10

$2,739.83

CALIFORNIA

$2,340,203,000

$44,871.29

$15,371.14

COLORADO

$110,335,557

$12,183.06

$4,173.44

CONNECTICUT

$96,348,893

$12,615.00

$4,321.40

DELAWARE

$57,682,085

$19,059.19

$6,528.93

FLORIDA

$366,124,529

$8,252.03

$2,826.82

GEORGIA

$199,359,072

$8,182.98

$2,803.17

HAWAII

$23,465,881

$9,382.49

$3,214.07

IOWA

$41,704,035

$11,534.98

$3,951.43

IDAHO

$42,121,101

$11,757.94

$4,027.81

ILLINOIS

$171,468,287

$8,163.10

$2,796.36

INDIANA

$93,019,644

$7,357.78

$2,520.48

KANSAS

$57,822,490

$13,515.96

$4,630.04

KENTUCKY

$79,253,567

$8,529.17

$2,921.76

LOUISIANA

$74,791,140

$4,544.95

$1,556.92

MASSACHUSETTS

$96,447,502

$20,281.50

$6,947.64

MARYLAND

$153,970,380

$18,361.00

$6,184.23

MAINE

$15,534,162

$16,767.03

$5,743.72

MICHIGAN

$368,557,916

$18,783.54

$6,434.50

MINNESOTA

$75,897,019

$18,492.23

$6,334.71

19

MISSOURI

$156,965,966

$11,075.51

$3,794.03

MISSISSIPPI

$67,770,994

$7,878.06

$2,698.71

MONTANA

$37,113,391

$18,323.61

$6,276.95

NORTH CAROLINA

$261,634,369

$15,691.32

$5,375.23

NORTH DAKOTA

$11,955,832

$15,978.71

$5,473.67

NEBRASKA

$46,175,690

$19,454.44

$6,664.32

NEW HAMPSHIRE

$1,820,623

$1,439.40

$493.08

NEW JERSEY

$163,305,683

$17,655.23

$6,047.99

NEW MEXICO

$42,865,600

$13,888.23

$4,757.56

NEVADA

$41,270,369

$7,357.73

$2,520.47

NEW YORK

$374,745,588

$15,972.31

$5,471.48

OHIO

$231,124,783

$10,383.79

$3,557.08

OKLAHOMA

$71,501,736

$5,991.30

$2,052.38

OREGON

$122,936,099

$19,166.05

$6,565.53

PENNSYLVANIA

$231,123,000

$10,309.33

$3,531.57

RHODE ISLAND

$21,960,881

$15,643.62

$5,358.89

SOUTH CAROLINA

$75,728,018

$7,883.63

$2,700.62

SOUTH DAKOTA

$19,910,914

$12,578.43

$4,308.87

TENNESSEE

$122,114,655

$9,340.39

$3,199.65

TEXAS

$608,068,075

$9,240.39

$3,165.39
$3,540.79

UTAH

$31,797,675

$10,336.26

VIRGINIA

$171,281,948

$10,016.23

$3,431.17

VERMONT

$22,132,931

$31,160.23

$10,674.27

WASHINGTON

$115,311,761

$15,197.89

$5,206.20

WISCONSIN

$126,202,347

$12,947.35

$4,435.25

WEST VIRGINIA

$23,377,603

$7,666.27

$2,626.16

WYOMING

$24,976,866

$26,742.67

$9,160.98

The story of the Unger group makes it clear that the prison population that accounts
for most of the correctional health care budget can be safely reduced. Millions of
dollars can be saved, and the resources can be invested in effective reentry supports
similar to the program implemented by the University of Maryland to assure that any
individual leaving the system after decades in prison can successfully and safely
return to the community.

20

HOW WE CAN IMPROVE REENTRY:
THE UNGER EXPERIENCE

T

he reentry system is flawed, and even with support, the Unger group still
faced a series of barriers. The challenges can be primarily attributed to
the inadequate release preparation offered by the DPSCS. In order to more
fully understand the challenges faced by the Unger group upon release, as well as
what worked best, JPI conducted a series of 15 individual interviews of members of
the Unger group to discuss their reintegration into the community after decades of
incarceration.

The Reentry Support Resulted in Success
Despite many obstacles, the Unger group has experienced significant success since
their release. Beyond the low recidivism rate, they had very little difficulty continuing
their medical care, and all of those interviewed indicated they have made an effort to
volunteer their time to give back to their community.
Because the average age of the Unger group members upon release was 64 years
old, many required daily medication. Every one of the Unger group interviewed
agreed that the continuation of medical care and medication was not a problem,
mostly due to the assistance of the University of Maryland program.
“Social workers [from the University of Maryland] has been a tremendous
help, because I am diabetic and I have high blood pressure, high cholesterol,
I have a cataract behind my eye, and vertical veins on my left leg. They have
been very instrumental in that particular area as far as making sure I get all
my medicines recharged, and they have been very helpful with the medical
part and I have been able to maintain my diabetes because of the service I
receive from them.”
Although there were some initial hurdles, all of the Unger group members JPI
interviewed were able to apply for and receive social security benefits in order to
maintain their medical care.

After being incarcerated for years, the Unger group has given back to
their community
As one Unger describes:

21

22

“Each year since I’ve been home, which is two years, I volunteer my services
with my daughter to help feed the less fortunate a Thanksgiving dinner, and
I volunteer my services with the community to help a basketball team with
coaching. Also with another organization, they had a little baking class, and
I just showed them how to bake a few cakes and cupcakes. Any time that I
could do something positive with volunteering, I will.”
Other members of the Unger group interviewed informally volunteer their time to
act as a role model with kids in their community:
“I like to talk to them, I like to see where they are at. I like for them to have
some type of insight of what they’re facing in the world when they get older.
So they prepare themselves now. Like if you see kids hanging on the corner,
eventually you know if there are four kids hanging on a corner; three or four
might wind up in prison at a later date in time. So my main purpose is to try
change that and make sure those young kids have a good idea of what the
future really holds for them.”
Even if Unger group members are unable to find suitable employment, they
volunteer what time they have to better the community to which they returned.
Lastly, the Unger group learned many lessons after their release. They came out of
prison with a sense of maturity, responsibility, and knowledge about themselves.
Others felt they adopted a broader perspective on life and a desire to better
themselves. When asked whether the incarceration caused this change, one Unger
group member said:
“…it comes from self… you have to make that choice, the system doesn’t play
a role with anything. The only thing the system did was keep me confined.”
Another describes his transformation:
“Well, yes I’m different because back then, you know, I was angry, you know,
and wouldn’t let nobody tell me nothing—wouldn’t listen. I was a hothead.
I mean incarceration just gave me time to sit down and think, start thinking
first before I reacted... [the facility] didn’t change me... I always wanted to do
something different but I was too impatient to go through that process. But
jail, like I said, it helped some. It helped me stop, it slowed me down. You
know, don’t think about getting it right now, think about the long run.”
Any parole reform needs to be coupled with the type of services the Unger group
received by the University of Maryland to effectively navigate the barriers that
typically lead to recidivism.

23

WHILE THEY RECEIVED BETTER REENTRY
PLANNING OVERALL, MANY UNGER
GROUP MEMBERS IDENTIFIED CHALLENGES

R

ecent research indicates that 43 percent of the returning geriatric
population will be arrested again within nine years of release.53 Although
the increased reentry support provided a better pathway for the Unger
group, the challenges that impact all returning citizens were still present.
Having an appropriate identification card is the foundation for a successful reentry.
It can lead to stable housing, employment, and health care. However, to obtain a
social security card or a driver’s license, the applicant needs a birth certificate. This
can pose a real challenge for an individual after serving decades behind bars. In
many cases, the DPSCS does not provide any reentry assistance prior to release,
including something as basic as obtaining identification, which further complicates
the process. Without any pre-release help, one Unger group member noted that it
can take as much as a year to get any identification.
The interviews also revealed concerns around the availability of housing and the
lack of post-release services. Even if the Unger group members were successful
at quickly obtaining identification, there are laws in place to deny housing for those
who are formerly incarcerated. One of the Unger group members interviewed said
he was denied housing by three apartment buildings based on his background.
Many returning citizens attempt to find relief in government-run programs, like
housing vouchers. However, the overburdened system has left many in need
without a suitable place to live.
“I tried to apply for housing, and they told me that to get Section 8 would
take me five years, so where am I supposed to go live now? Under a bridge?
All of the Unger group members interviewed by JPI indicated that they had some
family support upon return. In many cases though, they refused to rely on family for
temporary housing, furthering the financial strain.
“I can contribute by not becoming a liability for real, instead of me living
with my family, I live on my own with my wife. Now I am not a burden on my
family.”
One of the largest barriers for any returning citizen is employment. Although
the University of Maryland provided job training and placement services to help
overcome these challenges, all returning citizens are at a disadvantage in securing

24

adequate employment. Similar to housing, the Unger group had to deal with the
stigma of incarceration. Many were terminated from a position solely due to their
past criminal record, and others failed to find any positions suited to their skill set
and age.
When asked what the biggest challenge was when returning to the community, one
of the Ungers responded:
“Employment. Cannot find employment. I’ve been home for four years now.
Four years I’ve had to collect food stamps. That $192 a month. You know
what I mean, I’m a grown man! I’d rather go to work for 40 hours a week and
receive a check for the work.”
Another Unger group member responded to the same question by observing
that his experience should qualify him for a series of opportunities, but his past
overshadows his potential.
“My hands are tied. I am not asking for a lot. I’ve earned a bachelor’s degree
in prison. All kinds of certifications—I could do any of those things.”
Regardless of the effort of the increased reentry resources, it cannot eliminate
the systematic barriers that block thousands of returning citizens every year from
gaining adequate employment.
Besides the systematic barriers to housing and employment facing the Unger group,
40 years of technological advancements create a further handicap. Most received
little to no technology training before their release, and many did not know how to
use a smartphone or the internet. Some even indicated that the culture shock was
so challenging that they needed support and training to help them adjust.

WHAT OTHERS CAN LEARN FROM THE UNGER
EXPERIENCE IN IMPLEMENTING MORE EFFECTIVE
PAROLE POLICIES AND PRACTICES

W

hile many states have undertaken efforts to tackle mass incarceration
in recent years, rates of imprisonment remain stubbornly high. This is
increasingly the result of long prison sentences and restrictive parole
release policies that obscure efforts to improve prosecutorial practice and
divert people from prison who have committed low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Louisiana, New York, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas rank among

25

26

the states bearing the highest financial health care cost for incarcerating the
geriatric population. Throughout the years, each state had varying levels of
criminal justice reform, but very few resulted in parole reform that would ease
the barriers of reentry for the aging population.

Louisiana
Louisiana engaged in comprehensive criminal justice reinvestment in 2017,
including parole reform.54 As a result of these reforms, the state expects a 10
percent drop in its prison population and a savings of $78 million over the next
decade. The projected savings are intended to be reinvested in community-based
prison alternatives, increased funding for victim services, and additional programs
and services in juvenile and adult facilities.55 In 2017, lawmakers expanded parole
eligibility, including for those facing health risks, which could potentially impact
individuals over the age of 60. 56 However, lawmakers excluded standard geriatric
parole from their reforms even though the Justice Reinvestment Taskforce
recommended its establishment.57 Although Louisiana policymakers have taken
strides to better serve those in the criminal justice system, these reforms have
been met with backlash from prosecutors in the state.58 Through requests from the
Louisiana District Attorneys Association, several bills have been proposed to roll
back the reforms made in 2015. One piece of legislation would ban medical release
for those convicted of murder.59

New York
New York proposed “geriatric parole,” but it has been infrequently used and
thousands of individuals over 50 years old remain behind bars. 60 Although a recent
proposal seeks to expand geriatric parole, it excludes individuals based on their
convicted crime. These exclusions focus on violent crimes, including first-degree
murder and aggravated murder.61

California
California made strides by expanding geriatric parole in 2017—but failed to include
people convicted of violent offenses. California voters overwhelmingly passed
Proposition 57, which increases parole opportunities only for those convicted of
nonviolent crimes.62 Additionally, the California Assembly passed a bill establishing
an elderly parole program but excluded those convicted under the three strikes
rule.63
In the meantime, California has greatly increased the parole of people sentenced
to life with the possibility of parole. To date more than 3,000 people have been
released under Governor Brown’s revised parole policies. The reconviction rate for
those released from a parole-eligible life sentence is only 4 percent as compared to
an overall rate of 46 percent. 64
27

OTHER STATES HAVE MEDICAL OR GERIATRIC
PAROLE, BUT UNDER VERY LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES

Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania lifers are not eligible for parole, so the long-sentenced geriatric
population’s only relief is commutation. There is an application process for a
gubernatorial commutation that includes an initial recommendation from the parole
board. Although the parole board has recommended some for parole, only one
application has been approved by the governor since 1995.65

Florida
Florida has compassionate release, but it is limited to terminal illness. Many lifers
in Florida are barred from release unless they have a terminal condition with a life
expectancy of 18 months or less.66

Texas
Texas’ geriatric parole only includes the “oldest and sickest.” Doctors in the Texas
system have recommended thousands of aging individuals for geriatric parole, but
the state parole board has denied nearly 75 percent of the recommendations. These
denials continue despite research showing that the individuals who are not released
can cost up to $1 million a year in health care cost.67

Federal Bureau of Prisons
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) compassionate release program has existed
for decades but is rarely used. The BOP has failed to appropriately utilize
compassionate release, only granting 306 petitions, while denying more than 2,400
others since 2014.68 While the GRACE Act, which would increase accountability and
transparency in compassionate release, was introduced in the 115th Congressional
Session, it failed to move beyond the Senate Judiciary Committee.69 Ignoring
adequate compassionate release is costly. In a recent analysis, BOP spent 19
percent of its entire budget incarcerating the aging population.70
Despite parole reform being part of the legislative agenda in multiple states, much
of the geriatric population has been left out of the reforms based on prohibitions for
people convicted of violent offences.71 As a geriatric population convicted of violent
crime, the Unger group is a case study of the population many state lawmakers
repeatedly neglect in criminal justice reform conversations. It is clear from the
research and the experiences of older individuals who have been released around
the country that elderly individuals can be safely returned to the community. It is
28

also clear that reentry services tailored for this population, akin to those developed
by the University of Maryland, could further reduce the already low public safety
risk, and save millions of dollars for states and the federal government.

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

M

any states have seen meaningful parole reform left out of the policy
conversation. As stakeholders continue to grapple with what policy
reform should look like, it is important to address the barriers that have
caused those serving long-term sentences, many for violent offenses, to remain
behind bars. While every state will be faced with their own challenges, the
research and the experiences of the Unger group have provided guidance on
what parole reform can look like in Maryland and across the country.

Remove the governor from the parole process for lifers in Maryland
and make all parole boards independent.
In order for Maryland to ensure a fair and effective parole process, the governor
needs to be removed from the proceedings to allow the Parole Commission
sole jurisdiction over release decisions. Maryland is one of only three states that
still require the governor’s approval of a recommendation for release of people
serving a life sentence, which politicizes the decision-making process.72 This can
lead to people remaining in prison despite being at low-risk of reoffending. The
Parole Commission should be staffed with trained professionals, independent of
any political leadership, and make decisions based on the best available data,
assessments, and practice. The underlying offense should not be dispositive to the
release decision. These are the factors that should determine whether an individual
should be released from prison. Not the political calculations of an elected official.

Expand opportunities and incentives for release from prison.
Everyone, including those serving long-term sentences with an indeterminate
release date, should be provided an opportunity for meaningful review of their
progress while incarcerated. Long prison terms, little programming, and no
opportunities to earn expedited release from prison are a recipe for hopelessness,
and contrary to the purposes of having parole as part of the process. Unfortunately,
most correctional practices rely upon austerity as a means of punishment and, in
doing so, miss important opportunities to improve the lives of the people in prison.
29

30

Participating in prison programming or work release opportunities is the best way to
demonstrate to a parole board that you have transformed and are ready for release.
However, these types of programs are typically under resourced and those with an
indeterminate release date have to wait at the “back of the line” for opportunities. By
adequately funding programming, everyone serving would be able to gain goodtime or earned-time credit to decrease their overall length of stay and reduce their
parole supervision.
Even when adequately resourced, access to these programs can be limited by
statute or practice. Most parole-eligible lifers are sent directly to a maximumsecurity setting that lacks the rehabilitative programming of minimum- and mediumsecurity facilities. Opportunities for programming need to be disentangled from
the type of sentence so more lifers and people serving long prison terms would be
eligible to participate and improve their profile for eventual release.
Moreover, to incentivize good behavior, presumptive parole should be afforded to
those who have served at least 10 years and are actively participating in programs
without incurring any major disciplinary infractions. This would help shift the burden
to the state to demonstrate that someone is not suitable for release on public safety
ground, rather than the current system that lacks the necessary transparency.

Release decisions must reflect an individual’s conduct while
incarcerated and risk of engaging in future criminal activity.
Parole boards place too much weight on the underlying offense when considering
an application for release. For example, Maryland uses a risk assessment that only
assesses the individual at the time of the crime and not the progress made while
incarcerated. This results in people having their parole petition denied and remaining
in prison long past any potential public safety benefit.
All parole boards should use a validated dynamic risk and needs assessment
instrument that is grounded in the latest data and research in order to objectively
determine who is a suitable candidate for release. This tool must account for an
individual’s conduct while incarcerated, including disciplinary record, program
participation, and general service to the broader prison community, such as
mentorship. This will help a parole board to move beyond dated information and
“gut feelings” when assessing the public safety risk of releasing someone from
prison, while more effectively taking personal transformation while incarcerated
into consideration. Staff must be trained on appropriate techniques to conduct
the assessment, and the results should be transparent and understandable to
the individual who has filed the petition. This allows for meaningful tracking of
implementation and provides real oversight of the actions of the parole board.
In addition, parole boards should be using a structured decision-making matrix in
31

order to make data-driven decisions that treat all individuals equally. This means that
there is guidance that takes into account not only the risk and needs assessment,
but other relevant factors when determining whether to grant parole. A parole board
can also improve its effectiveness by increasing transparency in justifications for
denial and providing opportunities for appeal when parole is denied.

States should dedicate funding to establish specialized discharge
planning and reentry preparation for people who have served long
prison terms.
Before an individual’s release, departments of corrections should collect
identification documents, assist with any processes for continued health insurance,
and provide needed social services. When working with someone over 50,
leadership should create a geriatric assessment and care plan to evaluate their
individualized needs and connect them to community-based service providers and
trainings while still incarcerated. This may include something as minor as technology
proficiency classes or something as important as job placement.
In preparation for an individual’s release, there should be an established partnership
with housing providers to offer a supportive housing placement. Financial subsides
should also be established for reentry programming to avoid the burden on the
individual or their family. For those people over 50 and incarcerated for decades,
there should be specialized transitional planning with health care coordinators,
including allocation of Medicaid resources to nursing homes. If a nursing home is
not necessary for the individual, there should be adequate support for community
centers and other places that offer activities for older people.

Increase the use of compassionate release, geriatric and medical
parole.
There are often significant eligibility barriers for an individual applying for
compassionate, geriatric, and/or medical parole. The primary obstacle is the
committing offense. Policymakers should expand eligibility to include those who
have committed more serious offenses.
Recently changed Maryland law provides that all people over 60—excluding those
convicted of a sex offense—who have served 15 years or more of their sentence
should be eligible for geriatric parole. Those attempting to receive medical parole
must be “chronically” ill. While the law has changed, many barriers still remain,
including the governor’s approval following a recommendation for release by the
parole board, for individuals similar to the Unger group seeking to be released.

32

In order to better understand those serving long sentences, Maryland and other
states must continue to collect data and conduct necessary research to better
inform the parole process. In addition, to establish sustainability in the process,
parole boards should implement an immediate, validated, dynamic risk and needs
assessment of any individual over 50 years old to consider whether they are
appropriate for release.

CONCLUSION

T

hose sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in Maryland have
been unfairly treated since 1995. The current practice of denying parole
to virtually all persons serving a life sentence prevented the entire
Unger group from being safely released until the intervention of the courts.
The experience of the Unger group, with 188 people who were incarcerated
for decades for serious violent crimes having been safely released to the
community, demonstrates that this country locks up too many people for too
long. If it were not for Maryland’s Appellate Court, Maryland taxpayers would
have continued paying millions to incarcerate older individuals who are at
extremely low risk of further criminal behavior.
It is time for a change in Maryland and across the country, and the experiences
of the Unger group provide a powerful example of a different pathway forward.
Through a philanthropic-funded reentry program, 188 geriatric individuals were
able to safely leave prison and begin the process of rebuilding their lives and joining
their community. The experiences of the Unger group demonstrate why we should
treat our aging incarcerated population differently. They are also a stark reminder
than we must rethink our approach to violence to further reduce our reliance on
incarceration. To significantly reduce the growing and costly prison population,
reform to long sentences and parole for those incarcerated for violent crimes must
be part of the criminal justice agenda moving forward.

33

1	

Oliver Hinds, Jacob Kang-Brown, Olive Lu, People in Prison in 2017 (New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018).

2	

James Austin, Reforming Maryland’s Correctional System (Washington, DC: The JFA Institute, 2018).

3	

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring causes and consequences (Washington, DC: National Research Council of the National Academies, 2014).

4	

Ashley Nellis, Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2017).

5	

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features/long-prison-terms/a_matter_of_time.pdf
6	

Rebecca Silber, Alison Shames, and Kelsey Reid, Aging Out: Using Compassionate Release to Address the Growth of Aging and Infirm Prison Populations (New York, NY: Vera

Institute of Justice, 2017), https://storage.googleapis.com/vera-web-assets/downloads/Publications/compassionate-release-aging-infirm-prison-populations/legacy_downloads/Using-Compassionate-Release-to-Address-the-Growth-of-Aging-and-Infirm-Prison-Populations%E2%80%94Full-Report.pdf
7	

Tina Chui, It’s About Time: Aging prisoners, increasing costs, and geriatric release (New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, 2010).

8	

Dan Rodricks, “Glendening: ‘Life means life’ absolutism was wrong,” The Baltimore Sun, February 20, 2011.

9	

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Fiscal 2017 Budget Overview (Annapolis, MD: Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, 2018).

10	

Leigh Courtney et al., A Matter of Time

11	

Maryland Division of Corrections Annual Report FY 2017 (Annapolis, MD: Maryland Division of Corrections, 2018).

12	

Leigh Courtney et al., A Matter of Time

13	

Michael Millemann, Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, and Elizabeth Smith, “Releasing Older Prisoners,” Reforming Criminal Justice 4, (2017): 325-339.

14	

Tina Chui, It’s About Time

15	

Inimai Chettiar, Will Bunting, and Geoff Schotter, At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly (New York, NY: American Civil Liberties Union, 2012), https://www.

aclu.org/files/assets/elderlyprisonreport_20120613_1.pdf
16	

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17	

E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018).

18	

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Bureau Population Division, 2017).
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Robert Siegel and Matt Ozug, “From A Life Term To Life On The Outside: When Aging Felons Are Freed,” National Public Radio, February 18, 2016.

20	

Millemann, Bowman-Rivas, and Smith, “Releasing Older Prisoners,” 325-339.

21	

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Conference, June 20, 2018). Presentation.
22	

Bowman-Rivas and Smith, “The Maryland Unger Project”

23	

Millemann, Bowman-Rivas, and Smith, “Releasing Older Prisoners,” 325-339.

24	

Millemann, Bowman-Rivas, and Smith, “Releasing Older Prisoners,” 325-339.

25	

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26	

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27	

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28	

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29	

Bowman-Rivas and Smith, “The Maryland Unger Project”

30	

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31	

Ronald H. Aday and Jennifer J. Krabill, “Aging Offenders in the Criminal Justice System,” Marquette Elder’s Advisor 7, no. 2 (2006): 237-258; See also, Jamie Fellner, Old Behind Bars:

The Aging Prison Population in the United States (New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 2012), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/usprisons0112webwcover_0.pdf
32	

Lois Davis et al., Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR266.html

33	

Grant Duwe, “An Outcome Evaluation of a Prison Work Release Program Estimating Its Effects on Recidivism, Employment, and Cost Avoidance,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 26,

no. 6 (2015): 532-544.
34	

Nancy Vigne and Vera Kachnowski, A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Maryland (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 2003). https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publica-

tion/42771/410655-A-Portrait-of-Prisoner-Reentry-in-Maryland.PDF
35	

Roy Maurer, “Nearly half of employers continue to ask about criminal history on job application,” Society for Human Resource Management, August 23, 2017.

36	

Parole Perspectives in Maryland: A survey of people who returned to prison from parole and community supervision agents (Washington, D.C.: Justice Policy Institute, 2015), http://

www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/paroleperspectivesinmaryland.pdf
37	

Sarah Varney, “By the Numbers: Mental illness behind bars,” PBS News Hour, May 15, 2014.

38	

Vigne and Kachnowski, A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry

39	

Vigne and Kachnowski, A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry

40	

Parole Perspectives, Justice Policy Institute

41	

James Austin et al., Cost Benefit Analysis, (2018). Unpublished data.

42	

Parole Perspectives, Justice Policy Institute

43	

Millemann, Bowman-Rivas, and Smith, “Releasing Older Prisoners,” 325-339..

44	

Bowman-Rivas and Smith, “The Maryland Unger Project”

45	

Millemann, Bowman-Rivas, and Smith, “Releasing Older Prisoners,” 325-339.

46	

At American’s Expense: The mass incarceration of the elderly (New York, NY: American Civil Liberties Union, 2012).

47	

Mariel Alper and Matthew Durose, 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014) (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018), https://www.

bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/18upr9yfup0514.pdf
48	

Bowman-Rivas and Smith, “The Maryland Unger Project”

49	

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50	

E. Arias, M. Heron, and J. Xu, United States Life Tables (Hyattsville, MD: The National Center for Health Statistics, 2017).

51	

James Austin, et al., Cost Benefit Analysis

52	

DPSCS 2013 Prisoner Release/Recidivism Data File, analysis completed by James Austin (JFA Institute).

53	

Alper and Durose, 2018 Update

54	

Lisa Graybill, “Even After ‘Historic’ Criminal Justice Reform in Louisiana, Our Work Is Not Yet Done,” Harvard Law Review Blog, last modified October 17, 2017, https://blog.harvard-

lawreview.org/even-after-historic-criminal-justice-reform-in-louisiana-our-work-is-not-yet-done/

34

55	

Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Package (Baton Rouge, LA: State of Louisiana, 2017), https://perma.cc/3BV5-RVY8

56	

Louisiana’s 2017 Criminal Justice Reform: The most incarcerated state changes course (Washington, DC: The PEW Charitable Trusts, 2018); See also, Louisiana Justice Reinvest-

ment Package (Baton Rouge, LA: State of Louisiana, 2017), https://perma.cc/3BV5-RVY8
57	

Elain Ellerbe, “Geriatric Parole Should Be Considered in Louisiana,” Right on Crime, August 3, 2017.

58	

Julia O’ Donoghue, “District attorneys want to roll back some of Louisiana’s sentencing, parole changes,” The Times-Picayune, March 20, 2018.

59	

Julia O’ Donoghue, “Louisiana lawmakers introduced bills to chip away at criminal justice overhaul: Here’s a list” The Times-Picayune, March 20, 2018.

60	

“Cuomo Propose Changes to New York State Parole System,” NBC New York, March 5, 2018.

61	

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January 30, 2018), http://rappcampaign.com/wp-content/uploads/RAPP-2018-Budget-Hearing-Testimony_FINAL.pdf.
62	

Proposition 57: Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 – Fact Sheet (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2018).

63	

“California Legislative Information,” Assembly Bill No. 1448 – Elderly Parole Program, last modified October 12, 2017. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?-

bill_id=201720180AB1448; See also, Neil Shouse, “Who is eligible for parole under California’s ‘elderly Parole Program’?” Shouse California Law Group (Blog), last modified April 11, 2018. https://
www.shouselaw.com/who-is-eligible-for-parole-under-californias-elderly-parole-program
64	

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2017 Outcome Evaluation Report, accessed October 12, 2018, https://sites.cdcr.ca.gov/research/wp-content/uploads/

sites/9/2018/04/2017-Outcome-Evaluation-Report.pdf
65	

“Report of the Advisory Committee on Geriatric and Seriously Ill Inmates,” Joint State Government Commission, accessed July 11, 2018, http://jsg.legis.state.pa.us/publications.

cfm?JSPU_PUBLN_ID=40.
66	

Florida’s Aging Prisoner Problem (Tallahassee, FL: Florida Tax Watch, 2014).

67	

Emily Ramshaw, “Dying on the State’s Dime,” The Texas Tribune, June 3, 2010, https://www.texastribune.org/2010/06/03/few-texas-inmates-get-released-on-medical-parole/

68	

“Grace Act Fixes Long-Standing Issues with Compassionate Release,” Families Against Mandatory Minimums, last modified February 28, 2018, https://famm.org/grace-act-fixes-

long-standing-issues-with-compassionate-release/
69	

“S.2471 – Grace Act,” Congress.gov, accessed October 10, 2018, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/2471

70	

N.A., The Impact of an Aging Inmate Population on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Washington, DC: Office of the Inspector General, The U.S. Department of Justice, 2015).

71	

Georgian governor proposed adoption of recommendations from the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania has called for an increase in

parole supervision and parole to be based on risk to society. As a part of Senate Bill 66, Ohio lawmakers have proposed eliminating mandatory prison sentences for minor parole violations,
potentially reducing the prison population by 3,400 people and saving $20 million annually.
72	

https://www.abell.org/sites/default/files/publications/afr-stillblockingexit215.pdf

35

 

 

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