Committee pushes for earned time bill

Chairman Laura Pantelakos and several members of the House Criminal Justice Committee are trying to craft legislation to let prisoners earn sentence reductions through work, classes, training and treatment. Lawmakers have retained for intensive study two relevant bills, HB 649 giving that privilege to inmates age 25 or younger, and HB 404 giving it to all prisoners. 

“They’re doing this in a lot of other states,” Pantelakos said at a committee work session Tuesday, April 23. She noted with satisfaction that truth-in-sentencing laws are being repealed across the country. Those statutes so popular two decades ago establish a minimum prison term which only the presiding judge can change, following a sentence review hearing. 

The goal behind the two earned time bills this spring is to motivate inmates to deal with the issues that sent them to prison, reduce the prison census, and ultimately, avoid the cost of building a new men’s prison. The savings on institutional costs could pay for badly needed community programs that help parolees succeed and stay out of prison. 

Atty. James Cianci, the committee researcher, will give lawmakers an overview of earned time laws in at least 31 other states during a 10 a.m. work session of the full committee tomorrow, April 25. Pantelakos plans to invite a series of experts to explain the issue, starting April 30 with Joe Diament, the treatment and community programs director for the Department of Corrections. 

Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform is working with Pantelakos to set up a meeting between lawmakers and members of the Inmate Communications Committee who wrote HB 404. We’re hoping that could happen May 1, one of the few Wednesdays when there is no House floor session. Stay tuned. 

Rep. Phil Ginsburg said earned time is a good idea, but the committee needs to solve several problems with it. Some inmates may lack access to programs.  Others can not pay for them. And the department may lack the resources to offer all the needed programs. 

Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn has opposed earned time credits because some inmates might find themselves, through no fault of their own, ineligible for the programs that reduce sentences. According to the commissioner, those plaintiffs could claim a liberty interest and sue for equal protection. 

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, one of the earned time sponsors, said he’d like to see research on litigation in states that have adopted earned time laws. 

“Show us how to make this work, not how not to,” he told Diament. 

Diament answered that a prison has two basic tasks: to protect public safety and offer research-tested programs that help inmates reform. 

“Our job is to manage recidivism and the frequent flyers (who come back and again and again),” Diament said. “We know what programs reduce recidivism. We have the data. That is what should drive your decisions.” 

Rep. Gene Charron, a retired jail superintendent, wondered if the department is truly committed to rehabilitation. 

“I don’t see an appetite for doing something here,” Charron said. “Basic education is so vital. One of my inmates got his cap and gown and told me this was the first time anyone had taken the time to work with him.” 

Pantelakos suggested barring murderers and sex offenders from getting earned time credits. 

“I’m not sure they should be ineligible,” Vaillancourt replied. “I’m not saying they’re good people either.” 

Rep. Tim Robertson had a problem with putting all sex offenders in the same category. “Most will not reoffend,” he explained. 

Pantelakos called for a non-binding vote on merging the two competing earned time bills at some point, HB 404 by Vaillancourt and HB 649 by Rep. Mary Stuart Gile. There was unanimous approval. In that case Vaillancourt suggested killing his bill, because the other has important Senate co-sponsors.