Politics & Government

How inmates earn time off their sentences

Brian Funk left the state prison system Jan. 13, 2014, having spent half his life behind bars.

Emerging into an unfamiliar world of high-speed Internet and mobile technology — “I have an iPhone right now and I just push a button and ask it a question,” he marveled — Funk still managed to put his life in order. He found a good-paying job at a wastewater treatment plant. He married. He helped save the life of a soccer teammate who suffered a cardiac arrest last year.

Yet if not for the chance to knock time off his sentence, Funk would still be in prison today.

Inmates don’t usually serve the entire sentence handed down by a court. Most can and do have their time shortened by as much as a third. Of those released last year and eligible for that 33 percent time off, more than 59 percent received the full reduction.

Earned release time is at the heart of the mistaken early release of inmates that is roiling the state prison system.

The scandal has shown just how complicated the calculations involved can be, requiring software whose programming errors freed as many as 3,200 inmates early yet went undetected for a decade. At least two of the inmates prematurely released were later charged with deaths that happened while they should have been in prison.

As the state continues to sort out what went wrong, some advocates for inmates argue that policymakers should rethink earned release time — either by accelerating the early release of prisoners or tying the time shaved off prison sentences more directly to rehabilitation.

As crime has declined nationwide, momentum has shifted in favor of critics of mass incarceration.

But a proposal last year to shorten prison sentences and add probation-style supervision time for property crimes divided law enforcement and failed to win approval in the Legislature.

And it’s unclear how the Corrections error will affect the political landscape in Washington, where incarceration rates have shot up in recent decades, but much less sharply than they have nationwide.

FEWER REOFFEND

At least 29 states offer “good time” for following the rules, researcher Michael O’Hear, a Marquette University law professor, found in 2012.

And at least 31 states offer “earned time” for attending classes, treatment, work programs or other productive activities, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported in 2009.

Washington does both. Together they make up an inmate’s “earned release time.”

O’Hear says Washington occupies a middle ground between the most generous states and those that offer little or no time off.

The state provides for a maximum sentence reduction of one-third for most prisoners, while limiting the time to 10 percent for the most serious offenses.

That’s a stricter policy than one that existed from 2003 to 2010. During that period, the state saved money by reducing the sentences of about 20 percent of released inmates by as much as half.

Researchers from the nonpartisan, publicly funded Washington State Institute for Public Policy examined the results of the change and found inmates released under the more generous policy were less likely to return to crime.

On the other hand, researchers reported, the system results in fewer people in prison, which may be expected to increase crime. The two effects were roughly a wash.

Once other costs of prison were counted, researchers calculated that the policy provided a net benefit to people in Washington of more than $7,000 per inmate.

The “research clearly shows that a different policy on good time produces a better outcome,” said Bob Cooper, a lobbyist for defense attorneys who said the more generous policy should be restored.

But state lawmakers allowed the temporary change to quietly expire. Meanwhile, another part of the law remained on the books that lowered the amount of good time available for the most serious violent offenses and sex offenses from 15 percent to 10 percent.

TRUTH IN SENTENCING

Some worry about overly generous good-time policies straying from a goal of setting out plainly and with certainty how much time someone will serve.

It’s upsetting for a crime victim to find out about a sentence being cut in half, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said.

“A reasonable amount of good time is an important tool for the Department of Corrections, 10 to 15 percent,” Lindquist said. “Fifty-percent good time is not truth in sentencing. If the Legislature believes that the crime should call for a sentence that’s half its current sentence, then they ought to change the sentence so we have truth in sentencing.”

Lindquist supports a two-decade-old law that forbids good time on the part of a sentence giving additional prison time for weapon use.

“When you tell the crime victim that the defendant’s going to do an additional 5 years on the gun enhancement, that should be true,” he said.

The Legislature added those strict weapons enhancements as part of the 1995 “hard time for armed crime” law. The complex interaction between good time and enhancements are at the root of the sentencing error.

Aside from creating confusion, banning good time on sentence enhancements reduces the incentive to participate in education, job training, counseling and learning how to search for a home or job, said Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

“If the purpose is retribution, then putting them in jail or prison and giving them a set amount of time serves that purpose,” Shaw said, “but it doesn’t necessarily serve the purpose of rehabilitation, nor does it serve the purpose of community safety.”

EXPECTATIONS VARY

State rules provide for loss of good time when prisoners commit serious violations or multiple less-serious violations. For example, an unauthorized tattoo, piercing or scar can deduct up to 20 days of good time, while a fight can cost up to 60 days. High-ranking authorities can authorize more days.

Offenders who go long stretches without infractions and meet other standards can petition to have lost good time restored.

As for earned time, inmates receive a set amount of time per month as long as they do what is asked of them. The expectations are set down in each inmate’s Custody Facility Plan and can include work and school.

The plans are written with input from inmates and hold each one to an individualized standard, Department of Corrections officials said.

“Those who we know can do programming and can have employment, then we’re incentivizing them to be all they can be,” Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said.

“Some offenders, just getting up and taking a shower is all we can expect due to mental health concerns,” said Sue Schuler, an information-technology specialist for the department.

Offenders receive the same amount of time regardless of which programs they choose.

They aren’t penalized with loss of time if a program they should be taking isn’t available at the prison where they are housed.

O’Hear sees Washington’s strategy of combining good time and earned time as a model — although he cautioned that he hasn’t studied how the system works in practice.

“In order to get the maximum discount, inmates should not only be avoiding infractions,” he said, “they should also be doing positive things in prison.”

In practice, though, some say Washington’s earned release time is mainly a way to encourage following the rules.

“It’s my understanding that now it’s just more of a disincentive to stop inmates from assaulting,” Lindquist said.

Loren Taylor, an advocate for inmates, said while state prisons might reward education and job skills in theory, in practice there aren’t enough of those programs to go around – especially for inmates who are years away from release.

One inmate might work hard, enroll in a series of programs and pursue a degree while another one might essentially “hide,” Taylor said. “They play pinochle, they play Dungeons and Dragons. They watch TV. They go to the yard,” she said. “They maintain that same gangster thought.”

“Under the current system, both of those people if they have the same amount of time will get out on the exact same day.”

PROGRAMS AVAILABLE?

Washington’s prisons house more than 16,000 people.

More than 2,000 of them work for Correctional Industries, which is one way inmates can qualify for earned release time. Another 1,000 are on the waiting list, according to the job-training program.

About 9,000 are involved in some kind of education program, according to the community-college system that runs the programs. Hundreds more are on waiting lists for classes.

The college system offers high-school level education, vocational training, and other programs such as job-search, parenting and anger-management courses. State law doesn’t allow state money to be used to award associate degrees.

Some prisons offer many opportunities, while smaller prisons in more rural locations tend to have fewer programs, said Brian Walsh, policy associate for corrections education at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

The state offers basic education to nearly all inmates who lack high school education, Walsh said. For vocational training, however, the state prioritizes inmates with seven or fewer years remaining on their sentences, he said.

In practice, inmates with 15 or more years are unlikely to get into a vocational program, Walsh said.

“It makes more sense to have somebody trained the closer they are to getting out,” he said.

The community-college system would like to see more programs, he said. Colleges are asking the Legislature this year to let them use money within existing budgets to award associate degrees.

To take advantage of what is available, Walsh said offenders have to take some initiative.

That’s what Funk did while serving what was originally a nearly 22-year sentence for attempted murder and other convictions after shooting two men during a fight at age 18.

“I wanted to do something more than just play cards,” Funk said.

Funk, now 39 and living in Monroe, took computer classes — made more difficult by a ban on Internet access for inmates — and earned an associate degree, he said.

For wages that in some jobs were less than $1 an hour, Funk worked his way up from cleaning bathrooms to skilled work at a facility that processed prison wastewater. That set him up for the job he has now at a wastewater plant that pays him $28.90 an hour.

Funk was eligible to have 15 percent of his base sentence forgiven, not counting a 1-year gun enhancement, he said.

He didn’t stay out of trouble entirely, but he successfully petitioned for the return of most of the time he lost for infractions, he said. The most serious, he said, was a fight in 2003 with an inmate who was refereeing a basketball game.

Funk ended up serving a bit less than 19 years. He said earned release time provides a good incentive, but each inmate decides how much effort to put in.

“You have to self-motivate,” he said.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826, @Jordan_Schrader

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