Earned time bill goes to Senate hearing March 18

The Senate Judiciary Committee will listen to testimony this month on one of the best crime bills this year, HB 649, to let prisoners earn time off their sentences through exemplary self improvement. The bill sailed through the House on the consent calendar in January with a large coalition of nonprofit agencies supporting it. Friends of restorative justice should plan to testify at the Senate public hearing, which starts at 9:30 a.m. March 18 in Room 100 of the State House.

The bill would let a prisoner reduce his or her sentence by up to 13 months through course work, vocational training and certain programs. An inmate with earned time credits under HB 649 would still have to petition their trial court to approve the anticipated sentence reduction. The judge could always say no. Should the judge relax the sentence, the Parole Board could still deny parole.

Inmates would also forfeit their earned time credits by committing any of 28 major infractions, such as an escape attempt or an assault on an officer. Only prisoners assigned to be in the general population or on minimum security could earn the credits. Those are the least restrictive classification tiers.

Prisoners willing to go through all that red tape could earn the following credits off their minimum and maximum bids, up to a total of 395 days:


90 days for a graduate equivalency diploma,

120 days for a high school diploma,

180 days for an associates degree,

180 days for a bachelors degree.


60 days for completing a vocational program,

60 days for completing another vocational program,

60 days for meaningful participation in a mental health program,

60 days for meaningful participation in a parenting program.

The Department of Corrections opposed HB 649 last spring in part because it would have granted prisoners potentially unlimited earned time without going back to their sentencing courts. Lawmakers heavily amended the legislation on the advice of prison officials, who warned it would have violated the principle of truth in sentencing.

The famous truth-in-sentencing law of 1982 required people convicted after that date to serve their full sentences, for example, at least five years for a 5-to-10-year sentence. Before then an inmate with a clean record inside the walls could earn 150 days a year off their court-imposed minimum just by following the rules. The Union Leader launched a tough-on-crime campaign against convicted murderer Ed Coolidge when he became eligible for parole years ahead of his presumed minimum release date. The ensuing media firestorm forced the Parole Board to deny Coolidge release from prison the first several times he tried for it.

The statutory change three decades ago was popular at the time. But it effectively increased most sentences by 67 percent. A six-year sentence became 10 years. As a result, taxpayers have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in extra incarceration costs for prisoners in dangerously understaffed and overcrowded cellblocks.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt (R-Manchester), a strong supporter of HB 649, said it does not overturn truth in sentencing.

“But it’s a step in the right direction,” he said in committee.

A similar House bill failed by 152-171 in the House three years ago, mostly on party lines, after majority leader D.J. Bettencourt (R-Salem) lobbied against it as a violation of truth in sentencing. Bettencourt was ultra tough on crime, at least until he resigned from the House for lying about a required UNH Law School internship he never attended.