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Study: Prison Release of Older People is Safe, Saves Money

A landmark court case, Unger v. Maryland, is being used to offer lessons for national and state policymakers in tackling mass incarceration and the aging prison population. (Justice Policy Institute)
A landmark court case, Unger v. Maryland, is being used to offer lessons for national and state policymakers in tackling mass incarceration and the aging prison population. (Justice Policy Institute)
November 29, 2018

BALTIMORE – A new study shows that when older people are released from prison, they aren't the only ones who benefit – Maryland taxpayers also stand to gain, in terms of savings.

In 2012, a Maryland Supreme Court decision prompted the release of 188 inmates because of contradictory instructions Maryland judges once were required to give juries.

The case, Unger v. Maryland, released a group of mostly African Americans with an average age of 64, who had been behind bars for an average of 40 years for violent crimes.

The study by the Justice Policy Institute shows only five of the 188 returned to prison – a recidivism rate of around 3 percent.

Marc Schindler, the institute's executive director, sees it as proof that courts should look at more than just the offense in these types of cases.

"When we're looking at whether to release someone, particularly someone who's been sentenced to a very long period, we should look at their conduct while they've been incarcerated and their current risk of engaging in future criminal activity, versus just looking at the offense for which they were incarcerated," Schindler explained.

Prosecutors, law enforcement and some senators, such as Arkansas' Tom Cotton, have voiced concern with the calls for sentencing reform, believing older persons in prison may still be a danger and should fulfill their sentences.

But such a low recidivism rate means potential taxpayer savings are significant. These individuals' incarceration would cost $1 million each, compared to the $6,000 it costs on average to reintegrate them into society. The study says that's a savings of close to $185 million.

While some believe their release would be a disservice to victims and their families, Schindler said seeing them in prison is not always the goal for victims.

"What victims generally want is that people be held accountable," he noted. "That doesn't necessarily mean they have to be incarcerated for the rest of their lives."

Schindler added there are more than 800 people age 60 or older in Maryland prisons, that his advocacy group is pushing to be released safely, if possible.

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - MD