Judge wrong on earned time denial

Superior Court Justice James O’Neill erred this month in denying convicted burglar Joshua Shepard a 300-day sentence reduction for earning an associates degree in prison and completing a parenting program and vocational training. As a former prison case manager, I can tell you this man has been a model inmate and poses little risk to society now. Shepard won his chance at early freedom under the landmark earned time law of 2014 that I worked on for three years as an unpaid lobbyist.

I can identify with Shepard. I was once admiring the Belknap Range when my wife screamed I was crossing the median. I just missed two motorcyclists head on, fishtailed twice and skidded to a stop, shivering. I looked back. It seems the bikers never knew what almost hit them.

Shepard did the same thing in 2006, but he was alone at the wheel and killed three bikers. He almost died from a ruptured aorta and other trauma. His two-second lapse was horrific, but it was normal. The New Hampshire Supreme Court properly vacated his conviction in 2009, ruling his error was not, in fact, a crime. He was cold sober and driving at safe speed in a safe car. The state never paid him a dime for wrongfully locking him in a crowded, violent, drug-ridden cellblock.

Yes, after his release he went back to prison for a string of burglaries and drug possession. His injuries and prison experience must have fed into that. Despite his tragic life, he needed to go to prison again. He had become a bad man. But he demonstrably changed during his second time in stir.

I can tell you firsthand that lawmakers were hoping judges would grant these earned time credits, no more than 13 months in total, to the few inmates disciplined enough to save all their pitiful prison wages for college tuition, win scholarships, and complete other training and programs.

Judge O’Neill cited Shepard’s failure to pay restitution for the burglaries. Was he unaware of the prisoner’s presumably catastrophic medical bills and $125,000 restitution order for the fatal accident? How do you earn a few bucks a week and pay off a debt like that?

O’Neill noted as well some minor write ups Shepard received in prison. Those are almost impossible for good inmates to avoid.

Finally, the judge has forgotten the knee-jerk truth in sentencing law of 1982. It repealed the 150 days of good time inmates received every year for obeying the rules. That benighted change increased all sentences by 67 percent going forward. It has cost taxpayers easily a billion dollars. It launched a prison construction spree. It enshrined a draconian 19th century punishment philosophy.

Judge O’Neill should ponder his own mistake. And the Parole Board should make up for it when Shepard comes before them almost a year late.

Chris Dornin lives in Concord and founded the nonprofit agency Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform.

SOURCE: http://thecitizen.villagesoup.com/p/judge-wrong-on-earned-time-denial/12...