Inmates make their case for earned time

The trustee inmates who wrote a bill to let prisoners reduce their sentences through intense self-improvement told some visiting state reps the other day why that’s a good idea. Seven guests from the House Criminal Justice Committee went to the prison chapel to learn from self-taught experts on rehabilitation.

The inmates said HB 404 might spur substantial numbers of TV-addicted prisoners to work hard so they could reach the street sooner with the habits and skills to succeed. Inmate Darren Starr, a prolific jailhouse lawyer, said offering these earned time credits is critical to changing the culture among the inmates before it is too late. The incentive would encourage some people to learn to read, get their GEDs, and deal with the character issues that sent them to prison. 

Having accomplished any of that, they would pose a lower risk of recidivism and, not incidentally, save taxpayers on prison costs. A minority of inmates might even earn college degrees by saving every penny from their prison jobs, by selling fine crafts to outsiders, and by winning competitive scholarships. That’s how Starr worked his way through school inside the walls. 

An almost identical bill last year got carved up in committee then died 171-152 in a House roll call. Republican majority leader D.J. Bettencourt micromanaged the committee vetting process and led the opposition on the floor, warning the bill would repeal the sacred tradition of truth in sentencing. 

Weeks later he resigned his post for falsifying a report he did a UNH Law School internship. He never served the time to earn those school credits by working at the law office of Brandon Guida. Guida happened to be a fellow Republican rep and blew the whistle on his State House boss. 

Starr said maybe half the inmates lack a GED or high school diploma. And nearly a third of the prisoners buck the rules, set a hard tone for everyone else, and leave the joint worse than they arrived. Their motto is to max and relax, Starr said. Maybe another 60 percent give minimal effort in their required programs and avoid infractions the last six months before their parole hearings. 

“Both of these groups come back to prison over and over,” Starr said. “There’s peer pressure to do drugs, stay in close custody, and get accepted into gangs. Young kids caught in a drug deal come here. Seven years later we turn out a perfect criminal.” 

Inmate Jay Semprebon said severe budget cuts have gutted the prison education and treatment programs. But the people who need a GED could still get one if they tried at the Granite State High School behind the walls. The huge challenge is to engage them in the first place. 

“Is almost everybody going to be here long enough to get a GED who needs one?” asked Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, the prime sponsor of the earned time bill. It would give inmates 90 days off for a GED and 180 days for a high school diploma. 

“Yes,” said Semprebon. 

Semprebon said the main treatment programs are “Thinking for Change,” which improves impulse and anger control; and “Living in Balance,” which addresses addiction. According to Joe Diament, programming and community corrections director, cognitive/behavioral offerings like these two have a good track record of reducing recidivism. Under the bill, inmates could gain earned time credits by taking them. 

About 10 percent of the inmates really work at becoming good citizens, Starr added. They try to make the prison better, but it’s a struggle. 

“There used to be a long wait list for classes,” Starr said. “There’s approximately 75 percent enrollment now.” 

Inmate Paul Mancini said the prison offered night courses prior to an escape in 2003. The legislature has slashed the funding for classes and programs, but the inmate census has increased dramatically. 

“There’s serious overcrowding,” Mancini said.. “We once had programs from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. They’re almost all gone. New England College held its graduation ceremonies in the chapel. A speech by the valedictorian set me on fire. We had PELL grants (until the feds stopped giving them to prisoners). They paid for 80 percent of my college education.”

Rep. Gene Charron, the former Rockingham jail superintendent, asked if GED students live in supportive housing units with fellow students.

“No, everyone is mixed together,” Mancini said. “There are no more education pods. And we have bunks in all the living areas.” 

“So it’s all backwards?” said Charron.

“Yes,” said Mancini. 

Mancini described the 1980s and 1990s as maybe the prison’s golden era. Three colleges were offering degree programs. A model inmate could ask the judge for a sentence review after serving four years under a law designed to spur rehabilitation. It seemed to promise a reward for serious effort. 

“When I first got here,” Mancini said, “this was one of the top three prisons in the country for rehabilitation. There was an unwritten promise you had good chance of getting out if you did well and improved yourself.” 

In practice, inmates seldom win these sentence reductions. 

House Criminal Justice Committee chairman Laura Pantelakos asked about making inmates earn a GED before they could leave. 

“New York has a law like that,” Mancini said. 

Starr blamed the truth in sentencing law of 1982 for much of the rise in the prison population. As Starr explained, that legislation was sparked by the unexpected parole eligibility of Ed Coolidge, who had murdered a babysitter. 

Like other prisoners at the time, Coolidge had quietly earned 150 days a year of good time off his sentence by obeying the rules. The Union Leader fanned an uproar when it learned he might get out before his presumed minimum release date. Rep. Donna Sytek, head of the House Criminal Justice Committee, pushed through a law to eliminate good time in a special legislative session during an election year. She went on to became House speaker in part because of her tough-on-crime record. 

According to Starr, judges and prosecutors never compensated for all the extra incarceration by making across-the-board cuts to the sentences they sought or imposed. The emotional reaction to one high-profile case increased the prison time by 60 percent for many thousands of inmates convicted after 1982. A minimum bid of six years and three months became 10 years.

In other words, without truth in sentencing the current corrections budget might be in the $60 million range instead of roughly $100 million. Pantelakos confirmed the population grew from 284 in 1984 to 2,684 in 2011. 

“Truth in sentencing accounts for a lot of that,” she agreed. 

Pantelakos and Charron were among the sponsors of the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act of 2010, known as SB 500. It gave every prisoner at least nine months on parole as a matter of public safety and required the release of nonviolent prisoners no later than 120 percent of their minimum sentence. Parole violators would lose their freedom for up to 90 days before going back out. 

The law took effect right before the 2010 election. oh boy. The nonprofit (yet somehow tax exempt Cornerstone Policy Center) ran hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads against incumbent Gov. John Lynch. It featured a recently paroled sex offender charged with a new sex crime who was only going back to prison for 90 days. In fact, he never went back before the election. He was incarcerated in the county jail awaiting trial on the new arrest. According to GOP operatives, the ad had great traction. 

Republicans swept both houses of the legislature and gutted the new law, which reduced the prison census by 300 in its only year of operation. The prison census has climbed back to pre-SB 500 days. According to warden Richard Gerry of the men’s prison in Concord, the Berlin Prison is close to reopening a dorm in a gymnasium. 

“That was a hell of a bill,” said Charron. “Unfortunately, it became a political football.” 

Pantelakos said the smart thing would have been to delay its start until January, after the general election. 

“But we implemented it during football season,” she said. 

Starr acknowledged the issue of paroled sex offenders is always emotional. But he argued earned time should be available to them too. They have to pass the sex offender treatment program or they max out, he explained. 

“Earning time off their minimum does not equate with automatic release,” Starr said. “They still have to pass the Parole Board.” 

Finally, the Department evaluates each person to measure the risk they would pose on the outside, Starr said. Civil commitment is a possibility for the most dangerous sex offenders instead of releasing them at even their maximum sentence. 

“We have enough protections in place for sex offenders,” Starr concluded. 

Lawmakers asked if the state should fear litigation from prisoners ineligible for earned time through no fault of their own. The Department of Corrections has warned that could happen. Someone coded for special ed, for example, could almost never gain release through education. 

“Thirty-seven states have some form of earned time” Starr replied. “We’re not aware of any litigation. We’re confident you’ll find there’s no problem. There are huge cost savings applied to hundreds of thousands of inmates across the country. Maine applies it to all inmates, especially to sex offenders and violent inmates. They need to change the most before release.” 

Starr said he does a lot of litigation himself. An inmate would have to show he is part of an identifiable excluded group in order to make an equal protection claim. Lawmakers set aside money for a specific purpose all the time. 

“I researched the equal protection issue when we wrote the bill,” he said. 

Inmate Eric Grant said lawmakers would want to consult with their own attorneys, of course. He noted that New Hampshire is one of three states where truth in sentencing means serving one’s entire minimum sentence. In 29 states it means doing 85 percent of minimum. In four states it means 50 percent.

“We broke laws,” Grant said. “We had victims.. We need to fix what is broken within us. Having earned time would help us change what brought us to prison.” 

Vaillancourt noted it would cost money up front to put in all the programs inmates would demand. Starr said the alternative is not to save $35,000 per year per inmate.

“Get 10 inmates out and you’ve saved $350,000,” he said. 

Rep. Tim Robertson suggested the figure would be smaller. 

“You’d only save the marginal costs,” he explained. “You’re not going to fire a guard.” 

In Finance Committee presentations, Assistant DoC Commissioner Bill McGonagle has said the marginal cost per inmate is around $4,000, mostly for clothing, food and medical care. 

“So you’d only save a few thousand for a few inmates,” Vaillancourt said. “But it would be a lot more if you released a hundred and reduced staffing. And you could handle the extra students without increasing costs because the current classes have room.” 

“That’s right, there are vacancies,” said Starr. 

“This is the most informative hour and a half I’ve ever spent,” Vaillancourt said. 

Pantelakos said the committee has until November to kill the bill or plan to reintroduce it in January.