More than 150 elderly state prisoners successfully return to communities in and around Baltimore City, paving the way to reduce the prison population further without jeopardizing public safety.
In the 2012 case Unger v. State, the court ruled that people convicted in Maryland prior to 1981 on the basis of faulty advisory instructions given to juries had been denied due process and were entitled to new trials. At the time, 232 people in prison—who have become known as the Unger Group—were affected by this change, and 159 have been released.
OSI saw this as a unique opportunity, both to help a group of returning citizens access services they would need to adapt to life outside of prison successfully after many years of incarceration and to
demonstrate that, with such services, many of those currently incarcerated can safely be released.
This group shares some common demographics: all were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, but had their sentences automatically changed in 1987 when the Maryland General As
sembly enacted the life without parole for murder; most are in their 60s and 70s and were incarcerated for an average of 40 years; and 90% are African American and, at the time of their original conviction, had all-white or disproportionately white juries. Nearly all of the presiding judges were white men.
As of October 2016, the recidivism rate for the group is 0%. None of the 159 released has re-offended or had any probation violations.
By several measures, this is an extraordinary success. And it’s due, in very large part, to OSI-Baltimore’s work in partnership with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and two OSI grantees. First, social workers from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law’s Law and Social Work Services Program provided in-prison and post-release services to the Unger Group. Second, the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative
worked closely with the 159 released to reenter society successfully and create a community that emphasizes high expectations and a commitment to success.
The program’s results have important policy implications. First, states and the federal government can save substantial funds by releasing older prisoners. In Maryland, the cost to house an elderly prisoner is $68,000 per year. But perhaps the most crucial take away from the work of the Unger Project is that, with adequate re-entry resources, long-term prisoners can be released without jeopardizing public safety.