December 12, 2018, Samantha Melamed - The Philadelphia Inquirer
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?
(A group of members of the class of lifers known as Ungers, released after an average of 39 years in prison, due to flawed jury instructions. After about five years, the recidivism rate is below 4 percent/Photo from the Phildelphia Inquirer)
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.