The American public is finally becoming aware of the problem of mass incarceration, but not enough is being done to address it. Reform efforts have focused on non-violent offenders, as UB School of Law Professor Jane Murphy wrote in a Dec. 3 Baltimore Sun op-ed.
“Over the past three decades, the number of people jailed in America has tripled to almost 2.3 million, more per capita than any other country in the world. The racial disparities in our criminal justice system are flagrant and well documented,” wrote Prof. Murphy, who directs the Juvenile Justice Project at the law school.
Most people serving long sentences should be considered for release, she wrote. “As I can attest from working with clients sentenced to life as children, many people convicted of violent crimes have been overcharged or wrongfully convicted. But — and this is crucial — even those who are guilty of the crimes for which they are serving long sentences must be included in reform efforts,” she added.
Prof. Murphy described recent findings of the Justice Policy Institute, which followed 188 inmates who were released from prison following a 2012 court decision, Unger v. Maryland. Six years later, despite having been violent offenders and facing numerous challenges upon their release, only five had returned to prison, for a remarkably low 3 percent recidivism rate. By contrast, the recidivism rate for the general prison population is 40 percent.
What made the difference for these individuals, in addition to their age — the average age upon release was 39 — was the social support they received to help them access housing, medical care and employment.
“What lessons are to be derived from the Ungers? Violent offenders cannot be ‘off the table’ in criminal justice reform. With modest investment in re-entry services, many can be released without threatening public safety,” Prof. Murphy wrote.
“The Unger report estimates that the government could provide a similar level of support to all people released from prison at a cost of about $6,000 per individual, a fraction of the cost for continued incarceration. Instead of continuing to age in prison, the Ungers are leading meaningful and productive lives. …
“The Ungers provide the blueprint,” she concluded. “Let us take the lessons from this remarkable story and begin a new, more meaningful conversation about criminal justice reform.”