Nonprofit points to Maryland Unger cases as proof oldest prisoners should be set free

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.”

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the resolution of the gun charge against Wendell Beard.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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