Earned time credit programs vary state by state, but generally award probationers, prisoners, or parolees with a reduction in sentence for completion of educational, vocational, or rehabilitative programs. These programs can be structured as either a one-time credit for completion of an entire program or a continuing credit based on the length of participation in a program.1 Earned time credits are distinct from “good time” credits, which are typically awarded automatically but then deducted for violating prison rules. In other words, earned time credit is a “carrot” approach for good behavior, whereas traditional good time credit is a “stick” method for bad behavior. At least 38 states have now adopted some type of earned time credit program.2
Each state’s sentencing structure and policies impact who is eligible for earned time and the type and amount of rewards.3 In Oregon, for example, an eligible prisoner can earn up to 20 to 30 percent off their sentence.4 State laws usually direct corrections departments to determine the specifics of how earned time credits are awarded in relation to particular programs or activities. For example, in Kansas, a one-time 60-day earned credit is available to certain prisoners for completing drug treatment, a general education diploma, or vocational training.5 California, Colorado and Louisiana provide earned time credit to prisoners for contributing to disaster relief or conservation projects.6 In California, prisoners earn two days’ credit for each day of service.7 In Missouri, probationers and parolees can earn 30 days off their sentences for every month that they fulfill the conditions of their supervision.8
Studies show that earned time programs provide a benefit for the community at large by reducing recidivism rates as well as decreasing the total correctional population and costs. The Missouri program for probationers and parolees reduced the state’s supervised population by approximately 13,000 individuals in its first three years.9 An expanded earned time program implemented by Washington state led to a 3.5 percent reduction of future felonies among participants.10 In addition to this social benefit, the program also provided a monetary benefit of over $15,000 in cost savings per person or a return of $1.88 in savings for each dollar spent on the program.11 Similar programs in Maryland and New York have yielded similar cost savings and reductions in recidivism.12 The positive results of these programs build on past findings that educational and rehabilitative programs benefit communities as a whole.13
Prison Fellowship’s Position
Prison Fellowship supports earned time programs as a means of building constructive prison culture and protecting public safety. While proportional punishment may require a minimum amount of prison time served in order to satisfy what is owed for the harm to the victim, a restorative approach to justice may also allow for a portion of someone’s sentence to be shortened when a prisoner can demonstrate he or she has made a concerted effort to live positively and regain society’s trust. Earned time policies send a message that making amends and earning back the public’s trust are the expectation during punishment.
Due to public safety concerns, it may be appropriate to limit eligibility for early release as a reward for completing earned time programs. However, Prison Fellowship encourages policymakers to provide meaningful alternative incentives for all earned time program participants and to involve current and formerly incarcerated individuals in shaping those incentive offerings. By providing incentives for people to gain knowledge and skills or participate in programs that involve giving back to the community, we advance human dignity, facilitate values that are consistent with a productive life in society, and increase public safety.
1 Alison Lawrence, National Conference of State Legislatures, Cutting Corrections Costs: Earned Time Policies for State Prisoners 2 (July 2009), http://www.ncsl.org/documents/cj/earned_time_report.pdf.
2 The Pew Charitable Trusts, Missouri Policy Shortens Probation and Parole Terms, Protects Public Safety 3 (August 2016), at Figure 2, http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2016/08/missouri_policy_shortens_probation_and_parole_terms_protects_public_safety.pdf.
3 Lawrence, supra note 1.
4 Kate Brown, Department of Corrections: Administration of Earned Time, Secretary of State Audit Report 1 (Dec. 2010), http://sos.oregon.gov/Documents/audits/full/2010/2010-39.pdf.
5 Lawrence, supra note 1, at 6.
6 Id. at 1.
8 The Pew Charitable Trusts, supra note 2, at 1.
9 Id. at 5.
10 E.K. Drake, R. Barnoski, and S. Aos, Increased Earned Release From Prison: Impacts of a 2003 Law on Recidivism and Crime Costs, Revised, Washington State Institute for Public Policy 1 (April 2003), http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/ReportFile/1039/Wsipp_Increased-Earned-Release-From-Prison-Impacts-of-a-2003-Law-on-Recidivism-and-Crime-Costs-Revised_Full-Report.pdf.
12 Guy G. Cherry and Claire E. Rossmark, Maryland Diminution Credit System, Department of Legislative Services (December 2011), http://dls.state.md.us/data/polanasubare/polanasubare_coucrijusncivmat/Dimunition-Credits.pdf; Dan Bernstein and E. Michele Staley, Merit Time Program Summary, State of New York Department of Correctional Services (August 2007), http://www.doccs.ny.gov/Research/Reports/2007/Merit_Time_Through_2006.pdf.
13 See e.g. Ryang Hui Kim and David Clark, The effect of prison-based college education programs on recidivism: Propensity Score Matching approach, 41 J. Crim. Just. 3 (June 2013); Juanita Fuentes, George Rael, and Catherine Duncan, The Hope Bridge Program: Addressing Recidivism Through Education and Employment, 34 Cmty. Coll. J. Res. Prac. 11 (2010); William D. Bales, Shanna Van Slyke, and Thomas G. Blomberg, Substance Abuse Treatment in Prison and Community Renetry: Breaking the Cycle of Drugs, Crime, Incarceration, and Recidivism?, 13 Geo. J. Poverty Law & Pol’y 383 (2006).