Monday, February 22, 2010

Leaving Prison Early, Part I: The Effect of Good-Time Credits

originally published March 2, 2009

A little item in last Thursday’s Sun: Elmer Spencer, the convicted killer of a 9-year-old Frederick boy, died in prison. Before the murder he had been sentenced to 10 years for assault but was freed in 2000 after serving fewer than four years due to “good-time credits.” Five days later, he met, molested and murdered the boy.

“Good-time credits” is shorthand for the various credits that can be used to shorten the time a prisoner actually has to serve on a sentence. Technically called diminution credits, they result in early release for prison inmates, even without being paroled by the Maryland Parole Commission.

Credits accumulate from the first day an inmate steps into prison. Depending on the crime, he gets either 5 or 10 credits per month for “good conduct” applied to his sentence up front. He hasn’t earned any of them yet, and even if he misbehaves chances are he gets to keep them anyway. (See Early Release for Bad Behavior.) In reality, they aren’t for good conduct; they are just an arbitrary way to shorten sentences.

Next, an inmate can earn more credits in any of three ways:

· by working, 5 credits per month. These credits can’t be revoked once earned, even for misbehavior.

· by participating in an educational or vocational training program, 5 credits per month. These are also non-revocable credits.

· by sharing a cell or participating in “special projects” created by the prison, 5 credits per month.

The maximum any inmate can earn is 20 diminution credits per month. One credit equals one day off of the sentence. So an inmate sentenced to 10 years could accumulate 1200 days for “good conduct” over ten years of prison time that he hasn’t served yet (and may not serve), plus 120 additional days per year served in prison. By the end of 5 years he would have accumulated nearly enough days to be set free on what is called “mandatory release.”

But Spencer was released after only about 3 ½ years. He must have had the benefit of another law that has since been changed but still applies to all prisoners who were sentenced before the change: having credits from prior sentences applied to new sentences. Isn’t that mind-boggling?

Spencer’s case is so illustrative of our criminal justice system on so many levels. Identified as a pedophile early on, he received some mental health services through correctional service programs that did not did not change his behavior. Despite a number of assaults on children, he plea-bargained his way through county court systems and was repeatedly released early from prison. The Baltimore Sun used Spencer as one example in a 2001 editorial railing against “jailbirds [who] get out and commit unspeakable crimes in our communities.”

Piecemeal efforts have been made over the years to address early release. For example:

· Credits from old sentences can’t be applied to new sentences anymore. How ridiculous that they ever were. And too bad that for those grandfathered in, they still can be.

· Persons convicted of a sexual offense while on parole have to serve their new sentence consecutively to the first sentence. Judges used to be able to allow those sentences to be served concurrently, that is, at the same time. They still can for other types of crimes, and very often do. Why? Why should anyone serve sentences for two separate crime incidents at the same time?

And we continue to treat the issue in piecemeal fashion. Take a proposed bill from Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, for example. He would change the system of diminution credits as follows:

· Reduce “good conduct” credits from 10 to 7 per month for most offenses, and from 5 to 2 for violent and drug-dealing offenses. (Rosenberg ought to adopt Delegate Curt Anderson’s proposal in House Bill 87 and include felons who carry guns in the latter group.)

· Increase credits from 5 to 7 per month for work and educational participation.

· Decrease credits for prison-created “special projects” from 10 to 7.

· Create a special one-time, 30-day credit for those who obtain their high school diploma, a GED, or an associate’s degree.

If the bill’s mission is to tweak the status quo, it has much to commend it. It puts an emphasis on constructive activity within prison. Violent, drug-dealing (and hopefully gun-toting) criminals would have to make the greatest efforts to get out early. It does increase the number of credits that can’t be taken away for bad behavior (education and work credits,) but hearing officers don’t seem to take credits away anyway.

But what we really need is a comprehensive evaluation of how concurrent sentences and diminution credits affect prison time, and whether we need to change our fundamental approach. Because violent criminals, even if Rosenberg’s bill passes, could still get out over four years early on a 10 year sentence.

Should good-time credits be the only criteria for that? For criminals like Elmer Spencer?

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