Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Earned time" in Texas not reducing costs as in other states

Yesterday I ran across a new report (July) from the National Conference of State Legislatures titled "Cutting Corrections Costs: Earned Time Policies for State Prisoners" (pdf), and was somewhat surprised to see Texas listed among states with supposedly more progressive policies for "earned time."

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.


Anonymous said...

AS the wife of a human being who has served 14 of 30 years accruing over 32 years of good time, work time and flat time, I can attest that Texas is in a very sorry state for it's parole process. He comes up for his first parole next May. By the power of Jesus christ he will come home! I disagree'd with Hinajosa's Bill. While prison tends to bring out the worst in a human being; taking away good time had the purpose of punishing very foul behaviour. Foul behaviour should not be tolerated. Restoring good time does nothing to curb the violence and evil actions of some people. Accruing "good time" does nothing but give false hope to children, and spouses hoping and praying for a loved one's homecoming. Instituting conjugal visitation would go a long way to creating incentives for good behavior in prison. It would also bring families closer together and keep the bonds tight as research has shown that those who have family support upon discharge from the prison system fare much better in the free world. (Lower recividism.) Bringing our people home before they are swallowed up in the system would be a blessing too! Didn't Grits share an article with it's reader that 10 years is about all a human being can tolerate before their liklihood of success in the free world starts to dwindle?

sunray's wench said...

Some states, and some countries for that matter, do not have parole Boards at all. It may seem a novel concept, but in those places, inmates have their sentence set, and then they and everyone else knows how much time they have to do before they will be paroled, and they and everyone else knows that if they take certain classes or educational courses, they can "earn" extra time credits and reduce their stay in prison further.

The only function of the BPP that I can see is to keep inmates INSIDE prison. They serve no other purpose. As judges in TX are sentencing for longer time periods, the number of inmates now doing 20 years even on a non3g offence must be growing.

Set the bar at 1/3 time for all (and make it retrospective) except those with LWOP or death sentences, and let those who want to work for early release do so, while those who simply cannot keep out of trouble will do more of their sentence beyond the flat 1/3 time. It would be so much easier for everyone to understand and the BPP would not be needed.

It's not radical, it's not socialist, it is saving the Republican voters their tax dollars by reducing the number of people they are paying to house in prison.

strawberry6977 said...

In response to your "rub" about BPP still having to make a decision for Manditory Supervision... I believe whether it be for Parole or Manditory Supervision, one of the "reasons" is that the inmate will possibly be a threat to public safety. That is a matter of opinion...because some BPP Members might say that ALL inmates are a threat to public safety. It has NO guidance or policy what-so-ever on what really defines that "reason".

Anonymous said...

I spent lacking one day, 12 years; 11 months and 29 days on a non 40 year aggravate offense. I spent all my time fighting for my freedom since I was not the primer actor, did not use or exhibited a deadly weapon, nor at the crime. I was a victim of a person crime and since I knew him, and since he was dead I got his time...I got the deadly weapon off of me, was to have gone back for a new trial and did not get t he papers until after I had been out of prison for very long time. Therefore, now here I am stuck with a sentence that is way over the scope and no way to fight such. Parole Board in Texas is a laugh… Be bad and you get out, do good and you stay in and on parole forever. Jorita Hagins Abilene, Texas

Anonymous said...

I think what is lost in all this is that Texas good time laws were enacted as a way to compensate inmates for their labor. Most states pay their inmates, just like our federal corrections system, even though usually a very small amounts. In Texas once an inmate is released your compensation is taken back. So if you have a 35 year sentence and you served 17 years and accumulated 10 years good time, work time, and so on. When you are released you should only have 8 years left on parole. In Texas it does not work that way. All your work credit, good time credit, is taken back and you still have 18 years left on parole. So how do they justify taking back something you earned, other states actually pay their inmates, just like our federal system. They do not take their earned income back that would be illegal and the State Of Texas has been doing this for over 40 years. Remember the real reason for good time is to compensate inmates for their labor.