Maximize rehabilitation by expanding earned sentence credit opportunities
It is a longstanding correctional best practice to provide incarcerated people with “sentence credits” that reduce their prison time for good behavior or completing rehabilitative programs.1 However, these incentive policies often do not apply to people serving long sentences for serious crimes.
Decades of research and the experiences of both corrections professionals and incarcerated people show that both “good” and “earned” time policies offer several benefits.2 At an operational level, sentence credits allow corrections professionals to promote safe conditions for incarcerated people and staff.3 Sentence credits also encourage incarcerated people to participate in educational, vocational, mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and other rehabilitative prison programs that are proven to promote desistance and positive post-release outcomes.4
Good and Earned Time
Earned time – Sentence credit discounts awarded to incarcerated individuals for work, program participation, or exemplary behavior
Good time – Sentence credit discounts typically awarded by default to incarcerated individuals who follow their correctional plan and avoid serious misconduct
While there is a need for more research on this topic, evaluations of sentence credit programs indicate that they can be an effective strategy to reduce recidivism and decrease the other fiscal and human costs associated with crime and incarceration.5
While almost all people serving long sentences will eventually be released, they are able to earn fewer sentence credits than other incarcerated people. This is due to several factors, including lack of funding, the difficulty of implementing prison-based programs in the most secure prison settings (where people serving long sentences are typically housed), and program availability.6 Additionally, in the 1970s state legislatures and Congress began to restrict and, in some cases, abolish sentence credits for people convicted of serious and violent offenses, which mirrors the vast majority of people serving long sentences.7 The rationale behind this legislation was not simply to increase time served for this population. Advocates argued that sentence credits gave victims and survivors, the public, and other key stakeholders a false impression of how much time an individual would spend in prison based on their judicial sentence.8 In response, many states passed “truth-in-sentencing” laws that eliminated eligibility for sentence credits for certain categories of offenses.9
As it affirms in its guiding principles, the Task Force asserts that law and policy related to long sentences should “make our criminal justice system worthy of the respect of all people.” To do this, corrections professionals must have access to tools that can help promote safe conditions during custody, facilitate desistance, and reduce recidivism. The targeted use of sentence credits can help in the achievement of those goals by incentivizing good behavior and encouraging people serving long sentences to engage in evidence-based rehabilitative programming.
State and federal legislatures, state corrections systems, and the federal Bureau of Prisons should review sentence credit law and policy and consider expanding sentence credit opportunities for people serving long sentences to promote rehabilitation consistent with other principles of sentencing, ensuring that reforms are coupled with administrative implementation efforts to eliminate obstacles to a well-functioning, procedurally just sentencing credit system.
State legislatures and Congress, state corrections agencies, and the federal Bureau of Prisons should streamline sentence credit law and policy, ensuring transparency and predictability for incarcerated individuals, criminal justice professionals, and crime victims and survivors.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should publish clear explanations of how sentence credit systems work to educate courts, incarcerated people, policymakers, victims and survivors, and the general public.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should ensure that people serving long sentences are able to take full advantage of existing sentence credit law and policy and are able to engage in prison-based programming.
State legislatures and Congress should consider expanding eligibility for all sentence credits to people serving long sentences, with a special focus on credits awarded for successful completion of evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism.
State legislatures and Congress, state Department of Corrections, and the federal Bureau of Prisons should ensure there are transparent and fair processes for people serving long sentences to earn back any sentence credits lost due to rule violations.
State and federal authorities should support data collection and evaluation of sentence credit systems, assessing factors such as:
- Effectiveness at reducing disciplinary infractions and improving safe institutional conditions
- Effectiveness at promoting program completion among people serving long sentences
- The perceptions of people serving long sentences about program offerings as well as sentencing credit policies and procedures
- Victims’ and survivors’ views on the adequacy and comprehensiveness of program offerings for people serving long sentences
- Effectiveness of sentence credits at reducing recidivism and promoting desistance among this population
- Findings from evaluations should be broken out by length of sentence, as well as race, gender, age, and other demographic factors