State House News for Nov. 7, 2013: Earned time bill passes in House committee

The House Criminal Justice Committee voted 15-0 this week for a progressive inmate earned time bill, HB 649, and placed it on the consent calendar for a January floor vote. That decision was a bipartisan victory for supporters of restorative justice.  Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform was part of a coalition of nonprofit agencies that worked very hard for the legislation.

Rep. Gene Charron (R-Chester), the former Rockingham County Jail superintendent, said it’s important to keep inmates busy. 

“The vast majority of them are going home some day,” Charron said. “They need a trade and an education when they leave. I have seen guys earn their GEDs in jail. Their parents got to see them put their gowns on. It’s a tough program.”

The bill would let a prisoner reduce his or her sentence by up to 13 months through exemplary self improvement. Inmates could earn the following credits off their minimum and maximum bids:


  • 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 this spring and a competing bill filed by Rep. Steve Vaillancourt (R-Manchester), in part because both would have granted inmates unlimited earned time without going back to their sentencing courts. Lawmakers heavily amended the legislation on the advice of prison officials. 

“This bill does not overturn truth in sentencing, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Vaillancourt said. 

The truth in sentencing law of 1982 made prisoners serve their full minimum sentences. Prior to then a rule-abiding inmate could earn 150 days a year off his or her minimum sentence for good behavior.  

The change three decades ago effectively increased sentences going forward by up to two thirds. Taxpayers since have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in extra incarceration expenses.

Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) called HB 649 a good start. 

“We’ve come a long way with prison officials,” he noted. 

A similar House bill failed by 152-171 a year 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 UNH Law School internship he never attended.

An inmate with earned time credits under HB 649 would have to ask their trial court to approve a sentence reduction, and the judge could say no. If the judge said yes, the Parole Board could still deny release from prison. 

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

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, 603-620-7946,