Governor signs earned time bill

It took three challenging years for New Hampshire prisoners to win themselves a decent chance to earn modest sentence reductions. Make that five years if you count all the ups and downs in the fight over SB 500, the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act of 2010.

Gov. Maggie Hassan signed HB 649 into law this month, which a small group of savvy inmates researched, wrote, rewrote and lobbied for as best anyone can do that from inside razor wire. The bill allows a hard working inmate to petition his or her judge for up to 13 months off their sentence by becoming a better person and future employee. There’s a presumption the judge will usually say yes, but that is not a requirement in the new law. And if the judge issues a sentence reduction, the Parole Board can still deny parole.

Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform helped inmates gain this victory by bringing Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, Rep. Laura Pantelakos and a dozen other lawmakers into the prison to hear some hard truths from the Inmate Communications Committee. Its articulate members may sleep in cells, but they spend a lot of time in the library and classrooms. They are self-taught experts in prison safety, rehabilitation, and recidivism prevention. Our prisons need to produce more people like them for the sake of everyone’s safety and morale.

House members like Mary Stuart Gile, Steve Vaillancourt, Steve Shurtleff and Gene Charron and Senators D’Allesandro and Nancy Stiles worked hard for the bill as co-sponsors because it would help convicts leave the joint more skilled than they entered, succeed on the outside, and stay out of prison. It’s too soon to tell if HB 649 might save the state some money as well, but it could. If it lowers the recidivism rate, as hoped, it would  reduce the prison census and related costs. Or better yet, it could free up existing resources for more counseling, training and schooling. That need is critical.

The men’s prisons suspended all addiction treatment programs 13 months ago, and many convicted sex offenders wait long past their minimum sentences to enroll in an understaffed program they have to take before they can make parole. In fact, many inmates already have sentences giving them time off their minimums for completing the sex offender program, but they never get to do that through no fault of their own. The state spends an avoidable $35,000 per inmate per year in such cases because of short-sighted budgeting and the widespread belief that convicted lawbreakers never reform, so just warehouse them.

The new law allows the warden to strip earned time from an inmate who commits any of 28 major infractions, such as assaulting an officer. And only prisoners classified in the general population or on minimum security can earn the credits. Those are the least restrictive classification tiers. Such inmates can earn the following reductions up to a maximum of 395 days:


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.


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.

The Department of Corrections at first opposed HB 649 because it granted prisoners unlimited earned time without having to go back to their sentencing courts. Lawmakers heavily amended the legislation on the advice of prison officials, who warned it would have initially violated the principle of truth in sentencing.

Truth in sentencing has cost taxpayers approximately $400 million since 1982. It did that by lengthening all new sentences after that date by 67 percent. What used to be a six-year prison term became 10 years. Multiply that added cost, perhaps $140,000 per prisoner, by thousands of inmates who have passed through our prisons over three decades. HB 649 is a small step back toward fiscal and treatment sanity.

The ideal law, which we may or may not see again in our lifetimes, would relax  the whole sentencing structure and end the folly of mass incarceration. We had a statute like that as recently as 2010 in the form of SB 500. A new legislature gutted it after one year, but it had already reduced the prison population by 300 and cut recidivism.

For more on the history of SB 500 please see past articles.