Stanley Mitchell is at the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis, talking to legislators about the 37 years he served in prison after being convicted of driving a car that was involved in a homicide, a charge he has always denied.
“I was eligible for parole after 15 years,” he says. “I wasn’t going to do anything that was going to keep me there any longer than I had to be. Anything that was available, I took: college, NA, AA.”
Despite never receiving a single infraction in 37 years, Mitchell was denied parole over and over again. In Maryland, parole for life sentences must be approved by the governor, and since 1995, Maryland governors have only approved or allowed five non-medical parole releases.
“Since we do actually have the penalty of life with the possibility of parole, as a society, I think it is up to us to make sure that we follow what the legislature and the statute actually says, which means there has to be the ability for the parole,” says Delegate Kathleen Dumais, the House Majority Leader, who introduced the session in which Mitchell and two other Unger defendants spoke, along with Tara Huffman, director of OSI-Baltimore’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program.
Mitchell was finally released in 2013, as part of the sweeping 2012 Unger vs. Maryland court decision, which invalidated the convictions of 235 prisoners who had served more than 30 years as a result of faulty jury instructions, and made them eligible for release. At the time of the court decision, OSI-Baltimore saw an opportunity to demonstrate that, with proper reentry support, aging prisoners can be released safely to their communities, drastically reducing the prison population and saving millions in taxpayer dollars. For five years, OSI invested in “The Unger Clinic” at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, offering intensive case management and other critical supports to the Unger Group to help them make the transition.
The results were stunning.
After five years, less than one percent of those released had re-offended, compared to the overall recidivism rate in Maryland of 40 percent. (Six years later, Mitchell reports that he has not re-offended, “except for red light tickets.”) Moreover, the cost to provide the reentry support services offered by the Unger Clinic over five years was $185 million less than the cost to continue incarcerating these individuals.
The results of OSI-Baltimore’s investment in the Unger Clinic are documented in The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting: A Case Study in Safely Reducing Long Prison Terms and Saving Taxpayer Dollars, a report published by OSI-Baltimore grantee Justice Policy Institute. The cost-benefit to the public is further detailed in a brief commissioned by OSI-Baltimore and titled Building on the Unger Experience: A cost-benefit analysis of releasing aging prisoners. The brief also found that if 80 percent of Maryland’s aging prison population—those who were determined to be no threat to public safety—were released with the same supports as the Unger Group, taxpayers would save an additional $120 million in the first year, and more than one billion in a decade.