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October 10, 2010

Could (and should?) expanded good-time credits help reverse mass incarceration?

Good times The question in the title of this post is inspired by this effective local article from Washington state, which is headlined "Will the State Bring Back Half-Off Sentences for Good Behavior?".  The piece highlights that in most states it is budget woes, rather than concerns about mass incarceration, that is helping to generate a policy debate concerning how much of a sentence reduction a prisoner should be able to earn for good behavior while behind bars.  Here are excerpts:

A revival of the 50-percent-off provision for well-behaved inmates in the prison system is likely in January as the state’s budget situation grows increasingly dire.  Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, said she has “no doubt” that lawmakers will discuss the provision, which allows inmates serving time for non-violent offenses half off their sentence for good behavior.

A law for 50 percent off was enacted in 2003 but expired on July 1.  The vast majority of inmates in prison receive their earned release time, currently up to a third off, according to DOC officials.

Awarding time off for good behavior can be seen as a benefit to the taxpayer.  Inmates who get out early for good behavior don’t take up costly prison space, said Mary Fan, a criminal law professor at the University of Washington School of Law.  So, what began as a tool to keep inmates behaving has become a mechanism to relieve budgets in a time when the state is perennially strapped for cash.

Fan agreed that lawmakers who wish to appear tough on crime can, say, bolster sentences for a variety of offenses, while more discreetly saving money by expanding good time. “If, on the back end, you quietly open the door wider, it’s less controversial,” Fan said.

Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge believes good time can control behavior and provide incentives for inmates to stay in line while behind bars.  But 50 percent off is simply too much, he said. “That’s just for cost savings,” said Hauge, also a member of the state’s sentencing guidelines commission, which advises Gov. Chris Gregoire on criminal justice policy issues.

State appellate court decisions have also altered the idea of earned release time, Hauge said. “They’ve turned good time from a privilege one earns through good behavior to a right they’re entitled to,” Hauge said.

The state’s prisons currently hold more than 16,000 people. Each inmate costs $100 per day, making prisons a target for cuts.  Appleton, a member of the House public safety and emergency preparedness committee, said if re-elected, she would support the half-off provision. In her mind, the alternative is letting more inmates in state prisons out to lower costs, so it would be better to reward non-violent offenders and keep all others incarcerated. “I think that could save a lot of money,” she said.

State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, said he cannot support the concept of 50-percent off a sentence. He said the state’s residents have an expectation of “clear and definitive” sentences by a judge.  “I think the public likes truth in sentencing,” said Sheldon, also a Mason County commissioner.  “I think you ought to behave yourself anyway and be penalized for not behaving.”

Perhaps the only offenders who should get expanded good-time credits are those who can sing the great theme song to the classic 1970s sit-com, which ends with the fitting lines "Good Times ... Ain't we lucky we got 'em ... Good Times!"

October 10, 2010 at 10:29 AM | Permalink


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Of course, no one looks at the back-end costs of releasing criminals early, i.e., crimes that could have been prevented.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 10, 2010 1:28:23 PM

I think that sometimes people mess up, but if they can behave behind bars when they are tempted by all the inmates around them then they must be trying. I think we should give them 50% if they are able to keep a spotless record.

Posted by: sara | Nov 15, 2010 8:17:45 PM

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