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January 13, 2021

"More states need to use their 'good time' systems to get people out of prison during COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this new briefing from the Prison Policy Initiative. The subtitle highlights its themes: "Most states have statutes that allow incarcerated people to earn time off of their sentences. Why aren’t more states using this tool to safely reduce prison populations during COVID-19?".  Here is an excerpt (with links from the original):

With the COVID-19 infection rate in prisons four times that of the general U.S. population, public health and medical experts are urging prisons to reduce their populations to save lives.  But governors and corrections officials are still passing the buck — almost a year into the pandemic. Overlooking existing mechanisms that could be used to release people, states have instead imposed a number of policy changes that have caused further harm to the incarcerated people they are supposed to protect....

What states need now is a simple, equitable way of getting lots of people out of prison safely, rather than continuing to incarcerate them in ever more dangerous and cruel conditions.  A solution — albeit one that will require legislative action in most states — is for states to immediately change their “good time” policies.

Good time” — also called “earned time,” “meritorious credit,” or similar — is a system by which people in prison can earn time off their sentences.  States award time “credits” to incarcerated individuals to shorten the time they must serve before becoming parole-eligible or completing their sentences altogether.  Good time systems vary between states (see the National Conference of State Legislatures’ detailed table) but time credits are often given out for participating in programs.  For example, New York offers a six-month credit for completion of the GED.  26 states have a good time program that offers credits for certain educational programs and attainments, while 23 states offer credits for vocational training, 17 for participation in mental health or substance abuse treatment, 16 for work, 21 for other programming, and five for participating in disaster response (like firefighting).  Almost none of these kinds of programs are being offered consistently during the pandemic, effectively eliminating the option for incarcerated individuals to reduce their sentences while in prison during COVID-19.

People in prison can also often earn time off their sentences by complying with prison rules.  During the pandemic, people in prison have had to comply with much stricter rules than usual, including lockdowns that subject entire prisons to conditions “akin to solitary confinement.”  Yet most have not been rewarded with additional “good time” for compliance with these harsher conditions.

Rather than holding people back from accruing good time credits during the pandemic, states should give out more of those credits, not just because it’s the fair thing to do but because it will allow some people to leave prison immediately.

January 13, 2021 at 02:16 PM | Permalink

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