Five years ago, nearly 200 elderly lifers were released from prison en masse — people who had been convicted and sentenced before 1981, under jury instructions that were found unconstitutional in the case Unger v. Maryland. It created a natural experiment: Was it safe to release all these one-time violent criminals? Or would they land right back in prison?
The results are in, according to a study from Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a Washington-based nonprofit. The Ungers, as they’re called, have clocked a recidivism rate of just 3 percent. Researchers have found that on average, two-thirds of the state prisoners in the United States are arrested again within three years of release; about half are reincarcerated. JPI estimates the state’s averted costs at close to $1 million per individual released.
It was not an easy path, but with a relatively small investment in supportive services (about $6,000 per person), the Ungers, on average 64 years old, are finding their way in society.
“We know people age out of crime, and this is further evidence of that,” said Marc Schindler, the report’s author and JPI’s executive director. “At a fraction of the cost it would take to continue to incarcerate an older individual like this, this is really strong evidence ... to say we really can safely release this population.”
He said that could be an important lesson for Pennsylvania, which is home to more than 5,400 lifers — including at least 1,800 who are 55 or older (in prison, 55 is considered geriatric). Overall, the number of geriatric inmates in Pennsylvania’s prison system has increased fourfold in the last 20 years. It’s estimated that each of these prisoners costs two to three times more than a younger inmate to care for each year.
The result echoes a similar court-ordered experiment in Pennsylvania: the release, so far, of 158 juvenile lifers on parole, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that their sentences were unconstitutional. Since the first was released in 2016, none has been convicted of a new crime, though five have been taken back into custody on parole violations.
Gregg Bernstein, who was Baltimore City state’s attorney when the Ungers were released, said he could have retried the cases, but instead cut deals. That was a calculation based in part on whether the cases were winnable, given that many witnesses were deceased and some forensic evidence had been lost. As well, he said, “we had to take a really hard look at, what is the purpose to be served by the continued incarceration of these individuals after so many years?”
Bernstein couldn’t see one, though he pushed to require a support system, a home plan, and supervision for each person released.
Even with all that, freedom made for a jarring adjustment for men like Stanley Mitchell, 70, who was locked up about 36 years — “It’s like 36 years, 10 months, 19 days, and 22 hours, but that’s cool” — and released with just a few weeks' notice.
“One day I’m in a dormitory with people over 50," he said, "the next day I’m in downtown Baltimore, it’s 100 degrees outside, and I got a white T-shirt on, and my blood pressure medication in a paper bag.”
Mitchell felt like he’d emerged from a cave into a Star Trek episode.
“You’re constantly turning your head, like, ‘What’s that?’ Your neck’s almost snapping,” he said. “You go to the bathroom and the toilet flushes by itself, or you see someone in a car and they’re talking to themselves.”
One thing that helped, Mitchell said, were supports provided by the University of Maryland Law and Social Work Services Program, where staff and students students helped the Ungers figure out how to apply for driver’s licenses and benefits, obtain prescriptions, navigate the transit system, and locate housing.
Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, who runs that program, said $400,000 in funding from the Open Society Institute stretched to serve 130 men and one woman over five years with services and occasional emergency funds for medical copayments, deposits for housing, groceries, even underwear and socks for people released with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“One guy who was 85, his whole family, including his kids, had died, so he had nobody when he came out,” she said.
Almost everyone had pressing medical needs. Some were released directly into hospice. One man died 12 hours after his release: “He’d stopped taking his medication because he didn’t think he needed it outside.”
Yet, she said, it was people younger than 65 who struggled the most.
They wanted to work, to contribute to society, she said. “But it was hard to get them hired. Not only do you have a criminal record, but you also have age discrimination.” And jobs available through reentry programs mostly required physical labor ill-suited for this crew of elderly men.
Mtichell adapted, though, and began driving for Uber and Lyft, earning a five-star rating and even taking on a role as a supervisor for Lyft. That ended when it learned of his record and deactivated his accounts.
He said many have figured out unofficial means of employment, like selling baked goods or hauling away junk.
“We had to use our hustling skills we had in jail to make our own job, because nobody’s hiring us,” Mitchell said.
But Bowman-Rivas noted a remarkable sense of solidarity among the Ungers, whom she brought together for monthly gatherings that included communal meals, support groups, activities, and workshops on everything from nutrition to banking and STDs.
“'Failure is not an option' is the motto," she said. "They would check in on each other, provide support for each other. ... That’s a very big piece of their success: They have each other.”
Schindler said their story has inspired Maryland policymakers to look at possible mechanisms to seriously review the rest of its geriatric inmates — 3,000 more people over 55 — for parole. It’s come up as part of Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative conversations.
“There’s no reason that can’t happen in Pennsylvania,” Schindler said. Then, he added: “No reason other than politics.”
In Pennsylvania, which also takes part in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, many comparatively modest criminal-justice reforms failed to pass out of the General Assembly in the last session. A bill to make lifers eligible for parole after 15 years died without coming up for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Nathan Benefield, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Harrisburg think tank, blames personality conflicts and political squabbling rather than principled objections. He points to Congress, where the First Step criminal justice reform bill advocated by President Trump appears to have bipartisan support.
Given that Pennsylvania struggles to bring down its more than $2 billion prison budget, he believes even tough-on-crime lawmakers can be sold on changes like release for geriatric inmates or long-term lifers.
“These are low-risk offenders,” he said. “I think there’s also support for reducing costs in our criminal-justice system and understanding that what we have been doing since the ‘80s and ‘90s hasn’t been the most effective.”
For now, Mitchell said, he and his peers are determined to provide living proof.