As opposed to "good time" credits that merely reward good behavior (i.e., an absence of misbehavior), "earned time" rewards participation in educational or vocational, substance abuse treatment or other rehabilitation classes as well as work programs. Says NCSL, "Even though some earned time laws offer inmates a fairly small reduction in prison terms, those few days can add up to a significant cost savings across hundreds or thousands of inmates."
What's more, "states with earned time provisions have seen recidivism rates either remain unchanged or actually drop," and the "reduced recidivism results in secondary savings through averted future crime and punishment costs." Said the report:
Studies of earned time have examined the effect on crime rates, recidivism and costs. In New York, for example, the Department of Correctional Services reviewed the state’s merit time program from 1997 through 2006. During that time, 24,000 inmates received six-month reductions in their minimum term, resulting in a savings of $369 million. Another $15 million in savings during a three-year period can be attributed to the need for less capital construction. The recidivism rate for the early-release group was lower (31 percent) than that for inmates serving the full term (39 percent) after three years.In Texas "good conduct time" and "earned time" are conflated in the same law (see our statute). An appendix to the NCSL report lists Texas as having one of the more extensive programs, but in practice our "good conduct time" statute isn't reducing costs as much as this report predicts.
That's because Texas no longer has mandatory release when inmates' good time and time served equal their sentence (what used to be called "mandatory supervision"), so even if an inmate has earned extra good-time credit, they don't necessarily benefit from the rule - it's still up to the parole board whether they get out. And there's the rub: The current Board of Pardons and Parole has typically failed to follow its own release guidelines and doesn't systematically reward inmates who participate in programming while incarcerated.
According to parole attorney Bill Habern, accrued good time in Texas only benefits non-3(g) offenders (those are people who committed more serious violent crimes), and then its chief function is to expedite an inmate's first consideration by the parole board. But the parole board typically doesn't grant parole on the first try, he said, so in practice it's not actually reducing the prison population much, if at all.
"Good time earned does not shorten the actual length of one's sentence as it did prior to 1976," said Habern. "If a conviction gives rise to a five year sentence, then the offender is going to be under some type of supervision for five calendar years."
The more important function of good time in Texas, Habern opined, is as a sanction that TDCJ can take away from inmates as punishment. To that end, this session the Lege passed HB 93 by Hodge/Hinojosa which allows TDCJ to restore good-time credits taken away for discipline.
I also spoke yesterday with the author of the NCSL study, Alison Lawrence, and she confirmed Habern's interpretation of Texas' law. She said that in some other states good-time credit is actually taken off the overall sentence length and the cost savings estimates in her report are more applicable in those jurisdictions.
Lawrence forwarded me a copy of her notes on good-time policies in different jurisdictions (uploaded here on Google Documents), from which it's clear there are wide variations in how states run these programs. In Alabama, for example, good-time is not used for determining parole eligibility at all, it only reduces time spent on parole after release. Colorado, by contrast, lets nonviolent offenders use earned time to reduce their sentences up to 25%.
NCSL's purpose in compiling this report was to assist states in finding ways to reduce corrections costs without harming public safety. But Texas would need to alter its statute and parole policies before we gained that kind of benefit.