Maryland’s prison population continues to fall, but it’s not getting any younger. Our prisons still house more than 3,000 inmates over the age of 50, at least 1,000 over 60. In November, I reported that at least five inmates are over 80, and readers had two reactions to that: “Fine, let them die there” or “They’re too old to be released now.”
Becky Feldman, Maryland’s deputy public defender, stepped forward with an answer to the concern that it would be inhumane to suddenly release octogenarians who’ve known nothing but prison for most of their lives.
“It certainly isn’t simple and requires a lot of planning and support,” she says. “But I can say without reservation that it is possible and it is worth it — even for the oldest and most infirm.”
Feldman probably knows more about this than anyone.
She has worked for several years in the realm of the longest-imprisoned, providing post-conviction representation of geriatric lifers, old men who went to prison decades ago for murder or rape.
It was Feldman who recruited social workers and attorneys to work on the so-called Unger litigation, named for the 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that found a fundamental flaw in the handling of dozens of criminal trials before 1980. Nearly 200 inmates across the state, ranging from 52 to 83 years of age, had their convictions erased. Rather than retry decades-old cases, prosecutors struck deals to release the defendants, all of whom had been in prison for at least 35 years.
Older inmates generally do not return to criminality when, or if, they get out of prison. Studies have shown that. Among the Unger cohort of 199 ex-offenders, so far only four have been arrested for new crimes.
Some people disagree, of course. I get letters from readers who think a life sentence should mean exactly that, and they pose this question: Would you want the killer of someone you loved to ever get out of prison?
Becky Feldman has an answer for that, too. And it’s personal.
“I do not propose to speak on behalf of all victims,” she says. “But I will speak for myself, that yes, Maryland holds people too long.”
Feldman had a brother named Lenny.
In the winter of 2000, Lenny Kling came out of the Baltimore County Detention Center, having spent several months and his 22nd birthday there for violating the terms of his probation on a marijuana distribution charge. Relieved to be free again, he claimed to be finished with marijuana sales. “I’m done,” he told family and friends. “No more.”
But Lenny did not survive another month.
A 20-year-old guy, also a graduate of the detention center, kept calling him after his release, offering to get Lenny back into business. Despite his reluctance and better instincts, Lenny eventually agreed to buy the marijuana at a rendezvous on a residential street in northeast Baltimore.
It turned out to be a setup.
The guy from the detention center and an 18-year-old accomplice robbed Lenny of maybe $2,000, then shot him in the head.
“I was 23 years old and in my first year of law school,” Feldman says. “I lost my only sibling for the price of the money in his pocket.”
The killers were arrested, tried and convicted. The teenager got a life sentence with all but 35 years suspended. The older guy got 22 years for second-degree murder.
You would think an experience like that would make Becky Feldman a prosecutor rather than a public defender. She was encouraged to go that way by Frank Rangoussis, the man who prosecuted her brother’s killers. While at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Feldman helped prosecute cases in District Court for the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office.
“I was thinking about it as helping the victims and really understanding what they were going through,” she says of that assignment.
Later, while clerking for a judge in Towson, she saw in the parade of defendants her own brother. “They didn’t look like [Lenny] physically,” she says, “but I thought, ‘There he is,’ a foolish kid who got into something and thought he had control over it, and didn’t.”
Defendants, she found, seemed overwhelmed by the justice system, the complexity of the law. So she decided to take the path into defense of the indigent. Along the way she came to know a lot of Maryland’s oldest inmates, their life stories and common traits from childhood: “An absent parent, or two absent parents. Poverty. Getting involved in drug usage as a teenager. And probably a mental health component — not all the time, but a lot of the time.”
Paul DeWolfe, the chief public defender, made Feldman his deputy in 2017, citing her success in coordinating re-entry services — housing, employment counseling, medical care — for the Unger inmates as they came out of prison.
Feldman has not shared the story of her brother with colleagues, but clearly his death influenced her life in the law, in the realm of the longest-imprisoned.
“I made a conscious decision to let go of my anger and sadness, and to focus on healing, compassion, understanding, and the best of all — second chances,” she says. “I became a public defender to live those truths every day. I also have a certain amount of guilt that I could not save my brother. So my own redemption is working to bring other people’s brothers back home.”