The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting: A Case Study in Safely Reducing Long Prison Terms and Saving Taxpayer Dollars
Nov 15, 2018

Justice Policy Institute

A landmark court case, Unger v. Maryland, offers powerful lessons for policymakers and stakeholders interested in tackling mass incarceration. The 2012 case centered on remedying improper jury instructions and applied to a cohort of people who had been sentenced prior to 1981. The decision resulted in the potential release of 235 people from Maryland prisons who had served more than 30 years, and their release story created a natural experiment from which other states can learn. What makes the Unger decision particularly unique is that private philanthropy, through the Open Society Institute–Baltimore, provided specialized reentry programming to be made available to those individuals upon release. In the six years since the decision, we have learned a number of important lessons. These include:

  • We can safely release people who have committed a serious, violent offense.
  • Public safety will not be greatly impacted when rethinking our approach to violence.
  • We need to emphasize the importance of reentry.
  • Incarcerating the geriatric population is associated with increased costs with little public safety benefit.
  • The Unger group and others sentenced to long prison terms were deeply impacted by racial discrimination.

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