Reps to discuss earned time with inmates on May 1, 2013

Members of the House Criminal Justice Committee plan to meet May 1 at 10:30 a.m. with the Inmate Communications Committee at the men’s prison in Concord.. That’s a group of trustees who brief their warden and the corrections commissioner on prison conditions and policy issues. Some of the men are savvy jailhouse litigators who drafted earned time legislation last year to let inmates reduce their sentences by working or taking classes and programs.

Former House majority leader DJ Bettencourt almost single-handedly killed that bill in an emotional House floor fight. This year the Criminal Justice Committee has retained an almost identical bill, HB 404, for serious study in hopes of passing it in both chambers of the legislature in 2014. They know it will be an uphill fight.

There are several sticking points, starting with the opposition of Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn and the Attorney General’s Office. They fear litigation from inmates ineligible for some of the ways to win an early release through no fault of their own.

Atty. James Cianci, the legislative researcher for Criminal Justice, gave the committee a report Apr. 25 by the National Conference of State Legislatures on the 31 states offering earned time credits to prisoners as of 2009. Cianci had also done a cursory search for lawsuits by prisoners making equal protection claims that they were unfairly denied early release. He had found none so far. 

The report entitled “Cutting Corrections Costs: Earned Time Policies for State Prisoners,” said that 21 states were giving inmates time off for education, 18 for working at prison jobs, 16 for vocational training, 14 for rehabilitation programs, and 13 for “meritorious service.”  That category includes anything from superb job performance to more dangerous things like saving lives or preventing escapes and riots. Presumably that means ratting on fellow inmates.

California awards up to a year of sentence reduction for the latter. Its crowding and security problems are so severe a federal court has ordered the state to release 40,000 inmates from cruel and unusual conditions. Some states offer sentence reductions to all inmates. Others exclude violent prisoners in favor of the nonviolent.

The amount of sentence reduction at stake varies widely too. At the high end, California, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Vermont give inmates a day off for each day they spend in covered programs. Those inmates could get out in five years on a 10-year minimum sentence. The typical one-time award for earning a diploma or graduating from a program is 90 days. Some states rescind earned time for disciplinary infractions.

Cianci said our state is one of only three that have truth in sentencing laws which require an inmate to serve their full minimum sentence, for example, a decade on a 10 to 20 year term. Earned time would repeal our truth in sentencing statute passed in 1982 in response to the unexpected parole eligibility of the notorious murderer, Ed Coolidge. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole and quietly won substantial time off for good behavior. 

The Union Leader wrote screaming front page editorials about the injustice of letting Coolidge get out early. Crowds protested on the State House lawn. Lawmakers rode the backlash against one man to win lopsided majorities for HB 20 that year in both houses. Not incidentally, the new law severely punished all inmates for decades.

The fiscal impact note for HB 20 ranged as low as zero dollars if prosecutors and courts reduced the sentences they sought and ordered, to make up for the affect of truth in sentencing. The high end might be $1.3 million a year if existing sentencing and courtroom practices remained unchanged. And did they remain unchanged.

Then the wars on drugs, pot smokers, other addicts, drunk drivers, sex offenders and stalkers began. Lawmakers created a plethora of new felonies. They lengthened the penalties for old crime categories. They enhanced penalties by seven to 14 years for second offenders. Finally, prosecutors discovered and used their exponentially enhanced power in the plea bargaining process. Jury trials have all but disappeared.

We now know the 1982 law effectively increased every sentence by two thirds in the last 30 years. Our current $100 million corrections budget might trim down to $60 million if truth in sentencing had never happened. That law has easily cost taxpayers close to a billion dollars. It’s an outlay that lawmakers never warned the voters about in 1982. DJ Bettencourt never mentioned it last year either. There were a lot of things he never told people.   

By Chris Dornin, founder, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform