No ‘get out of jail free’ card - Inmates line up for earned tme credit under new law

CONVICTED BURGLAR Joshua Shepard appeared in Belknap County Superior Court on Wednesday and asked a judge to reduce his sentence by 300 days under the terms of a newly passed state law that allows inmates to receive earned time credit if they take advantage of educational opportunities, vocational training and other programs while behind bars.
 photo t600-JoshuaShepard_zps97843778.jpg
LACONIA — Following a Wednesday morning hearing, a judge is weighing whether a brazen burglar who entered homes throughout the city to steal cash while the occupants slept is eligible to have his sentenced reduced as the result of a new state law.
Joshua Shepard, 35, most recently of Laconia, is serving a five to 14 year prison sentence after pleading guilty to joining co-defendant Spencer Mullarkey in entering homes through doors and windows left open in the summer heat in 2011.
Chris Dornin of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform said New Hampshire Department of Correction's Commission Bill Wrenn has already certified 65 inmates as having completed the work required to earn sentence reductions, some as large as 13 months.
Each of those model inmates including Shepard still have to win approval from their sentencing judges, which is not a done deal in every case. Prosecutors and victim advocates can always object. And if a judge approves earned time credit, that only makes a defendant eligible for parole a bit sooner. The Parole Board can still deny immediate release.
“The law is no ‘get out of jail free’ card,” said Dornin.
Other inmates have applied for earned time since the law went into effect Sept. 9, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons, but have failed to get the needed approval from Wrenn for having disciplinary infractions or gang affiliations.
“We hope the new law motivates a lot of future inmates to get their GEDs, diplomas, and various vocational and treatment certificates so they leave prison better than when they entered,” said Dornin.
Only prisoners classified in the general population or minimum security can earn the credits.
Defense attorney David Bownes said during Wednesday's hearing that Shepard's request for earned time credit had been approved by Commissioner Wrenn.
“I think Mr. Shepard has done all he can to demonstrate to the court that he is remorseful for the crimes he has committed, has taken responsibility and taken advantage of every program available to him at the prison."
Shepard has earned an associate’s degree in business administration, graduating summa cum laude, and had also completed vocational training and other programs designed to improve his life skills and his ability to parent his children, Bownes told Judge James D. O'Neill III.
Deputy Belknap County Attorney Carley Ahern objected to the defense request to shave 300 days off the remaining time in Shepard's 5- to 14-year sentence, asserting that at the time a plea deal was negotiated averting a trial, the state had no way of anticipating the changing political landscape that led to the passage of HB 649, or of informing the victims of the potential for the proposed sanction to be reduced.
She also argued that in August 2013, Shepard was written up for two infractions, one for altering or damaging property of another and the second for possession of anything not issued by the prison.
“This is a relatively new law that was passed as a result of a bipartisan effort of the Legislature to provide a vehicle for these folks who can demonstrate real efforts to improvement themselves,” Bownes said.
Shepard has taken every opportunity while incarcerated, Bownes said, to avail himself of a variety of educational opportunities “to foster a sense within himself that he can become a good and productive person once he has completed his sentence, whatever that may be.”
Ahern said the County Attorney's Office had contacted the victims of Shepard's crimes. While one victim said she was heartened that Shepard was making efforts to improve himself, she said the offense against her and her family has not been reduced.
Judge O'Neill took the case under advisement following the brief morning hearing and will issue a written ruling at a later date.
Under the new law signed by Gov. Hassan last June, inmates can earn reductions up to a maximum of 395 days. Sixty days of earned time credit can be granted if a eligible inmate completes a vocational program, another vocational program, or meaningfully participates in a mental health program or parenting classes. They can also earn a 90 day reduction for obtaining a graduate equivalency diploma, 120 days for a high school diploma and 180 days for an associates or bachelors degree.
The new law also empowers Commissioner Wrenn to strip earned time from any inmate who commits any of 28 major infractions, including assaulting a correctional officer. Only inmates in the least restrictive classification tiers at the prison are potentially eligible for earned time credit and only if the provision is included in the sentencing order if imposed after the law went into effect.
By BEA LEWIS | Jan 22, 2015