Corrections commissioner Bill Wrenn has already certified 65 prisoners as

Corrections commissioner Bill Wrenn has already certified 65 prisoners as having completed the work required to earn sentence reductions, some as large as 13 months, under a new law signed by Gov. Hassan last June. It took inmate leaders three challenging years of lobbying and meeting with lawmakers inside the walls to win this modest victory. Citizens for Criminal Justice helped them arrange those face-to-face sales opportunities and helped to recruit sponsors for HB 649, the landmark prison reform bill of 2015.

A group of savvy trustee prisoners on the Inmate Communications Committee researched, wrote, rewrote and fought for the change. Those 65 model inmates still have to win approval from their sentencing judges, which is not a done deal in every case. Victim advocates and prosecutors can always object at future court hearings.  And if the judge issues a sentence reduction, that only makes a person eligible for parole a bit sooner. The Parole Board can still deny immediate release. The law is no get-out-jail-free card.

Prisoners admitted to prison this fall and in the future can only earn the same credits if their judge has given them that right as part of their sentence. We hope every criminal defense lawyer knows all about HB 649. No rational person would want to enter prison without hope of getting out a little bit sooner through hard work.

Much thanks for the new law should go to its prime sponsor, Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors including Senators Lou D’Allesandro and Nancy Stiles and Representatives Laura Pantelakos, Steve Vaillancourt, Steve Shurtleff, Gene Charron and Caroline Gargasz.

Other inmates have applied for earned time since the law took effect Sept. 9, according to Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons, but they have been turned down for having disciplinary write-ups or gang affiliations. One of those rejected prisoners has told CCJR his turn-down decision was unfair, and we’re looking into the 30 pages of supporting paperwork he sent us. Stay tuned.

We hope the new law motivates a lot of future inmates to get GEDs, diplomas, and various vocational and treatment certificates so they leave prison better than they entered. That self improvement should make them a bit more competitive in the global and local job market and less likely to return to prison or jail.

It’s too soon to tell if HB 649 might save the state some money as well, but it could. If it lowers the recidivism rate, as hoped, it would slowly reduce the prison census and related costs. Or better yet, it could free up existing resources for more counseling, training and schooling. That need is critical.

The new law allows the commissioner to strip earned time from an inmate who commits any of 28 major infractions, such as assaulting an officer. And only prisoners classified in the general population or minimum security can earn the credits. Those are the least restrictive classification tiers.

Such inmates can earn the following reductions up to a maximum of 395 days:


60 days for completing a vocational program, another vocational program, or meaningful participation in a mental health program or a parenting program.


90 days for a graduate equivalency diploma

120 days for a high school diploma

180 days for an associate’s degree or a bachelors

The Department of Corrections at first opposed HB 649 because it granted prisoners unlimited earned time without having to go back to their sentencing courts. A handful of prisoners have actually done the work to qualify for more than 13 months if it were available. Lawmakers heavily amended the legislation on the advice of prison officials, who warned it would have initially violated the principle of truth in sentencing.

Truth in sentencing stripped away 150 days of good time prisoners could receive for compliant behavior up until 1982. That change has cost taxpayers approximately $400 million since it took force by lengthening all new sentences by 67 percent. What used to be a six-year prison term became 10 years. Multiply that added cost, perhaps $140,000 for the average prisoner, by thousands of inmates who have passed through our prisons over three decades. HB 649 is a small step back toward fiscal and treatment sanity.

The ideal law, which we may or may not see again in our lifetimes, would relax the whole sentencing structure and end the folly of mass incarceration. We had a statute like that as recently as 2010 in the form of SB 500. A new legislature gutted it after one year, but it had already reduced the prison population by 300 and cut recidivism. For more on the history of SB 500, visit

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, 620-7946,