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Paroling elderly inmates is humane solution to costly mass incarceration

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As the United States enters its fourth decade of the mass incarceration crisis, state and federal policymakers are taking steps to push back against a wasteful system that costs billions of taxpayer dollars and does little to deliver on promises of public safety. It has put enormous strain on state budgets, while disproportionately impacting people of color and destroying lives, families and communities. The number of people serving life sentences is four times what it was in 1984 — currently imposed on one of every seven people in a U.S. prison.

This growth in long prison sentences has done little to improve public safety, with states that have reduced incarceration levels experiencing larger drops in crime than states that continue to incarcerate people at very high rates. But it has contributed to a rapidly expanding population of incarcerated elderly people, so that our prisons now essentially function as expensive yet inhumane nursing homes. In 1993, there were 45,000 incarcerated individuals over 50 years old; with the continuous growth, it is estimated that number will reach 400,000 by 2030.

{mosads}For policymakers to significantly reduce the growing and costly prison population, strategies must include reform to long sentences for violent crimes. Focusing reforms on reducing incarceration of geriatric people is an effective way to safely reduce the prison population. Research indicates they are the least likely to pose a risk to public safety; criminal behavior typically peaks at 17 years old and then drops as an individual develops into adulthood. While many states, such as California, Texas and New York, have expanded geriatric parole eligibility, it is infrequently used.

A naturally-occurring experiment, just a few miles from the nation’s capital, provides a roadmap for this strategy to safely reduce incarceration, create a more humane justice system and save significant taxpayer dollars. A landmark court ruling — Unger v. Maryland — and the opportunities it created, offer powerful lessons for policymakers and stakeholders in tackling mass incarceration. The 2012 case, centered on remedying improper jury instructions, applied to a cohort of 235 people sentenced prior to 1981. In the six years since the decision, 188 people have been released; at release, the average age of the Ungers was 64, and the average term served was 40 years.

As with everything in America’s justice system, the issue of racial disparity is deeply intertwined and ever-present. The Unger group were deeply impacted by racial discrimination: almost 90 percent of the Unger group are black, despite only 18 percent of Maryland’s population being black at the time of their convictions. Almost all were convicted by all white judges, juries and prosecutors.

In the six years since the decision, we have learned a number of important lessons, the most significant of which is that the Unger experience proves we can safely release people who have committed a serious, violent offense. And since they’ve been home, the Ungers have been contributing to their communities; as volunteers and mentors they help keep us all safer by encouraging youths to avoid the mistakes they made when they were younger.

One of the things that make the Ungers unique is that, thanks to an investment by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, they received specialized reentry programming before and after release. With that individualized support, the Ungers have had a less than 3 percent recidivism rate, a fraction of the Maryland rate of 40 percent. This support is a significant advance over what most people receive and should be a model for governments across the country to replicate.

The Ungers were primarily convicted of homicide and rape, yet they have safely returned to the community. Too often we fail to take into consideration a research-based assessment of the risk of reoffending when making release decisions. It is time to reconsider parole policies and assessment tools that disregard rehabilitation and continue to keep people locked up based solely on the severity of their underlying offense.

Imposing extremely long sentences, alongside low rates of parole, serves political motivations, not increased public safety. By pivoting away from a parole approach focused solely on the crime committed, to one that assesses the current risk of re-offending and provides tailored re-entry services, states can safely reduce their prison population, save taxpayer money and create a fairer and more effective justice system in the process. There are hundreds of thousands of geriatric-aged individuals in prisons across the country, many with the same profile as the Ungers. Maryland alone could save over $100 million in the first year by reducing its low-risk geriatric population.

Extreme sentencing has been justified in the name of public safety, but the evidence demonstrates it is a failed policy. Even crime victims have said long sentences don’t serve their needs, and that money could be better spent on crime prevention and victims services. Keeping someone locked up when they are elderly and infirm, in a wheelchair or on oxygen, until they die alone and far away from loved ones, doesn’t create a safe and healthy society.The Unger experience demonstrates that we can safely release older individuals. It is long past time we rethink our approach to preventing, and responding to, violent crime.

Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Tags Criminal justice Incarceration in the United States Penology Prison
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