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Pandemic underscores need to release more elderly prisoners | COMMENTARY

Maryland should do more to release elderly prisoners who aren't a danger to society.
Maryland should do more to release elderly prisoners who aren't a danger to society. (Rattankun Thongbun/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The pandemic has once again shined light on the debate of whether housing prisoners into their advanced years is the best use of resources. In normal times, elderly inmates pose a strain on the state’s prison system. They tend to be more costly to care for because of age-related medical conditions, and research has found that many older incarcerated people could be released with little threat to public safety.

Keeping them incarcerated as COVID-19 rages could not only be costly, however, but deadly. While COVID-19 poses a public health threat to all, the risk of death and serious complications is greater for older adults who contract the virus. And high-density prison environments are perfect breeding grounds for transmission, with thousands of people living in close quarters. Already more than 1,000 Maryland inmates have tested positive for the virus, and more than a dozen have died from it.

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The state should use this crisis as an opportunity to prevent lost lives and reform prison practices by making older inmates — there were 972 over the age of 60 as of the end of FY 2020 — a priority for release, even after the coronavirus is under control. Maryland officials attempted to change state statute a few years ago to release a segment of inmates age 60 or older. But zero inmates met the criteria that would have qualified them for release. Legislation introduced last year based on recommendations from the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Oversight Board to expand the pool of elderly prisoners eligible for what they call “geriatric parole” was stymied by the shortening of the General Assembly session in response to the pandemic. Supporters of that legislation are eager to push again for change this year.

In the meantime, it’s up to the local jurisdictions to act. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is taking the right approach for the city. This month, her office announced the formation of a Sentencing Review Unit that will consider recommending inmate release in certain cases.

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“Our state has a mass incarceration problem caused by lengthy and excessive sentences, which are disproportionately imposed on people of color,” she said in a statement. “My office’s duty to fairness and justice does not end at sentencing. Evidence shows that people age-out of crime, and revisiting harsh sentences demonstrates our belief in rehabilitation and redemption. At the same time, amid a second wave of COVID-19, I have a responsibility to protect public health by reducing the incarcerated population to prevent the further spread of this disease.”

She has hired Becky Feldman, a former Deputy Public Defender of Maryland, to oversee the new unit. Ms. Feldman already played a key role in the release of many older incarcerated people under the landmark Unger ruling, a 2012 decision by Maryland’s highest court that led to certain cases being overturned because of misleading jury instructions. The average age of the 200 or so prisoners released after the ruling was 64, according to a 2018 study, and the vast majority of them have not been rearrested, suggesting they pose no further threat.

Ms. Feldman will use her expertise on the issue to focus on reviewing the cases in Baltimore of men and women older than 60 who served 25 years in prison or more on a life sentence, or served 25 years or more for a crime committed before the age of 18, and have a documented medical condition that puts them at a higher risk of death were they to contract COVID-19.

Inmates shouldn’t be released on the condition of age and potential for illness alone, of course. They must
have made the most of their time to earn such a second chance, and those they’ve hurt should have a say. The review by Ms. Feldman will take into consideration such things as the feelings of the victims or their families, the facts of the case, length of prison sentence, medical condition and remorse.

Also needed is a strong plan for helping these inmates re-enter society; it should ensure stable housing, help finding employment and health care coverage. Many of these inmates have been incarcerated since they were teenagers and will have a hard time adapting to a new way of life. If they don’t have a means to support themselves financially and emotionally, they could resort to old ways.

Though this group of people can never make up for their past actions, they can still offer something to society upon release, if given the proper assistance, and relieve some of the burden on the correctional system. Other jurisdictions should follow Ms. Mosby’s lead.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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