Non­profit says state saves when old­est pris­on­ers are set free

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

In the past six years, nearly 200 pris­on­ers, mostly geri­atric men con­victed of rape and mur­der, have been set free in Mary­land.

Only one of them has been ar­rested again, re­searchers for the Jus­tice Pol­icy In­sti­tute have found.

The Wash­ing­ton, D.C., non­profit is point­ing to those re­leased un­der Mary­land’s land­mark Unger rul­ing as proof that prison re­form could save tax­pay­ers mil­lions of dol­lars with­out com­pro­mis­ing pub­lic safety.

“We lit­er­ally have prisons that are func­tion­ing as very ex­pen­sive nurs­ing homes,” said Marc Schindler, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Jus­tice Pol­icy In­sti­tute. “There’s a bet­ter way to do this.”

The non­profit ad­vo­cates for new ways to safely re­duce the coun­try’s grow­ing prison pop­u­la­tion. In a re­port re­leased Thurs­day, the in­sti­tute is call­ing on Mary­land law­mak­ers to ex­pand op­por­tu­ni­ties for the state’s old­est pris­on­ers to be re­leased. The non­profit also wants changes to what re­searchers call an an­ti­quated pa­role process in Mary­land.

Cur­rently, the gov­er­nor must ap­prove pa­role for any pris­oner sen­tenced to life.

“Pol­i­cy­mak­ers should be think­ing, I only want peo­ple in prison who are a sig­nif­i­cant threat,” Schindler said. “If peo­ple can be re­leased, and it can save sig­nif­i­cant amounts of tax­payer dol­lars, that’s some­thing we should be look­ing at very se­ri­ously.”

A spokes­woman for Gov. Larry Ho­gan did not re­spond Wed­nes­day to the rec­om­men­da­tion.

The re­lease of 188 pris­on­ers un­der the so-called Unger rul­ing has pro­vided re­searchers a rare case study into the aging prison pop­u­la­tion. The rul­ing came in 2012, when Mary­land’s high­est court found jury in­struc­tions were mis­lead­ing in many tri­als be­fore 1980. Pris­on­ers across the state ap­pealed and had their con­vic­tions erased. Pros­e­cu­tors then struck deals to re­lease the de­fen­dants on time served rather than retry their decades-old mur­der cases.

The av­er­age age of the pris­on­ers re­leased was 64, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Re­searchers say it cost the state nearly $54,000 a year to lock up each of the 188 be­cause their ad­vanced ages re­quire more med­i­cal care. State prison of­fi­cials es­ti­mate the cost of an av­er­age pris­oner at $46,000 a year.

The first pris­on­ers were re­leased un­der Unger in De­cem­ber 2012, and Univer­sity of Mary­land so­cial work­ers helped them ac­cli­mate to free­dom.

Since then, only Wen­dell Beard, 63, has been ar­rested again, ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice Pol­icy In­sti­tute re­port. That’s lower than the 40 per­cent re­cidi­vism rate for all Mary­land pris­on­ers, re­searchers say.

Beard spent 35 years in prison for mur­der be­fore his re­lease in 2015. He was ar­rested on drug and gun charges last De­cem­ber, but the drug charges were dropped. He pleaded guilty to one gun charge and got sen­tenced to five years.

The re­lease of the Unger pris­on­ers is ex­pected to save tax­pay­ers $185 mil­lion over the years to come, wrote the re­searchers. They cited es­ti­mates by the crim­i­nal jus­tice re­search firm JFA In­sti­tute.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence of the Unger group,” re­searchers wrote, “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.” — Tim Pru­dente

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