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

December 2018 / Abell-Supported Research / Criminal Justice and Addiction
people in a church standing on the steps
With support from the Abell Foundation, the Justice Policy Institute looked at what happened when Maryland released nearly 200 older people from prison as a result of the Unger v. Maryland case.

The landmark court case, Unger v. Maryland, offered 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 to life in prison prior to 1981. The decision resulted in the potential release of nearly 200 people from Maryland prisons who had served more than 30 years and been sentenced to life terms. Most of these individuals were convicted of murder or rape.  The release created a natural case study from which Maryland and other states can learn.

What makes the Unger decision particularly unique is that specialized reentry programming was provided by the University of Maryland School of Social Work and funded by the Open Society Institute–Baltimore. A team of social workers, lawyers and formerly incarcerated people, provided an intensive level of support to the people released as a result of the Unger decision, also known as “the Ungers.” The Unger releasees received specialized assistance in obtaining state ID and social security cards, birth certificates, benefits, transportation, housing, employment, and referrals to reentry programs.

In the six years since the decision, only five out of the 188 people released under the Unger ruling have returned to prison for violating parole or a new crime – less than 3 percent. Maryland’s overall recidivism rate is 40 percent.

We have learned a number of important lessons from the Ungers including:

  • There is a way to safely release people who have committed serious, violent offenses instead of incarcerating them for life.
  • We can support public safety while rethinking our response to violent offenses.
  • Reentry services are important to the success of people returning from prison and successfully reduce recidivism.
  • Incarcerating the geriatric population is associated with increased costs with little public safety benefit.
  • The Unger group is almost 90 percent black. The Ungers and others sentenced to long prison terms are deeply impacted by racial discrimination.

The JPI report recommends specific policy changes. These include:

  • Remove the governor from the parole process in Maryland, and make all parole boards independent.
  • Expand opportunities and incentives for release from prison.
  • Dedicate state funds to establish programs that plan for release and prepare for reentry.
  • Increase the use of compassionate release and geriatric and medical parole.