$25 million in savings for early release of prisoners doesn’t factor in additional crime

Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance

EARNED TIME DEFINED

According to Alison Lawrence, writing for the National Conference of State Legislatures in a July 2009 report titled, “Cutting corrections costs:  Earned Time Policies for State Prisoners,”

“At least 31 states provide these incentives (education, vocational training, treatment and work programs or participate in other productive activities) — called “earned time” — that reduce the costs of incarceration and help offenders succeed when they return to the community. Inmate prison terms are reduced from the date on which they might have been released had they not completed the specified programs. Earned time is distinguished from, and can be offered in addition to, “good time” credits, which are awarded to offenders who follow prison rules.”

In Oregon “earned time” is defined differently – it includes “good time credits.”The actual wording of administrative rule 291-097-0010 is:

“(2) Earned Time Credits: Sentence reduction credits (days), up to 30 percent of the sentence imposed, that can be earned by an inmate sentenced under sentencing guidelines, pursuant to ORS 421.121, and these rules. The inmate earns the reductions by compliance with his/her Oregon Corrections Plan and institution conduct.”

Offenders sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences are not eligible for earned time, and earned time is limited to 20% for many other crimes.

PURPOSES OF EARNED TIME (INCLUDING GOOD TIME) IN OREGON

The pertinent part of Oregon Administrative rule 291-097-0005 states:

(B) Earned time credits are designed to provide a minimum amount of time credits necessary to serve as adequate incentive for appropriate institutional behavior, program participation, and for certain inmates, obtaining a high school diploma, General Educational Development (GED) certificate, a certificate or degree from a post-secondary education institution as defined in ORS 337.511, or a journey level certification from aregistered apprenticeship program as defined in ORS 660.010. (Emphasis added)

Nowhere in this definition is there a statement about saving corrections costs.  We suspect this is why the Secretary of State’s Audit recommends revisiting this purpose clause.  We also suspect that the minimum amount of time credits language will disappear because of the perceived need by some to let offenders out earlier to save costs or for other reasons.

The Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance (OAA) supports the concept of earned time for offenders who are not sentenced to mandatory minimum terms.  The OAA agrees with the Attorney General, the Sheriffs’ Association, the Police Chiefs’ Association and the District Attorneys’ Association that, “Earned time plays a useful role in public safety by providing incarcerated inmates with an incentive to behave in a lawful manner while behind bars.”  The OAA further agrees with these law enforcement professionals that, “…granting unduly large sentence reductions for good conduct may damage public safety – and public confidence in thepublic safety system – by eroding deterrence and truth in sentencing.”  We believe that earned time should be limited in amount. The 20% earned time Oregon had for about 20 years was generous when compared to the Federal government’s 15% rule.  20% off a sentence should be enough incentive for inmates to behave and complete education and work programs.  For example, 20% off a 5-year sentence imposed by a judge is a full year off the sentence.  We also believe that the time off the sentence should actually be earned by good behavior and/or by completion of the education or work programs.  The Secretary of State’s Audit points out on page 17 that “…earned time was awarded to inmates who never entered a program but remained on a waitlist, and inmates whose programming was discontinued when they were moved to another institution.” This policy of receiving earned time while on waitlists for programs should change.  Performance counts.

TRUTH IN SENTENCING

Truth in sentencing is a long-standing concept in criminal justice.  Simply put, when a judge pronounces a sentence, there is the expectation, particularly by victims and also by the public, that the sentence shall be carried out.  When the judge says 5 years in prison or 2 years probation, that is what she/he means and it shall happen.  Earned time flies in the face of truth in sentencing.  For example, the judge says 5 years and the offender actually only serves 4 years because of earned time. In Oregon this deception is somewhat lessened by the legal requirement that the judge allow or not allow programs including earned time at the penitentiary as part of the sentence.  However, the judge must either allow full earned time consideration by the Department of Corrections (usually 20% but sometimes up to 30%) or not at all.  Truth in sentencing is a powerful argument for limiting earned time to 20% or less.

SECRETARY OF STATE AUDIT–A FEW OBSERVATIONS

1.     In our opinion the audit does an excellent job explaining how earned time has worked in Oregon over time and how sentencing laws have changed over time.  We recommend reading the entire audit.  You can find it on the Secretary of State’s website under recent audits.

2.     On page 15 of the audit it says, “We estimate that Oregon saved at least $25 million with the earned time program for 2009.”  The implication is that these savings are good.  Unfortunately and unlike the Washington State Institute for Public Policy’s earned time study cited to the Senate Judiciary in 2009 and 2010 hearings, there is no analysis in the Oregon audit of the cost of additional crime caused by the early release of prisoners.  In the Washington study where only non-violent, low, low risk offenders were given additional earned time, 4.7 additional crimes were committed due to the early releases, and about half the savings to the state were offset by the additional costs of the additional crimes.  This is not to say that Oregon’s results would be the same.  They may be different because Oregon’s released offenders were not all low risk, and some of them had violence in their past.  It is safe to say, that the $25 million is a gross number without the necessary analysis to determine the net savings, if any.

3.     The big question is, does Oregon’s “earned time” increase or decrease recidivism?  Unfortunately, the audit doesn’t answer this question.  On page 2 of the audit it says:

“Because of concerns about availability and comparability of data, as well as varying definitions of recidivism, we were not able to draw conclusions about the impact of earned time on the recidivism of inmates released in Oregon.

However, later in this report, we identify studies from other jurisdictions that provide information on recidivism and the benefits and costs of incarceration reduction.” (Emphasis added)

Just a note here:  Whether earned time is cost effective or reduces or increases recidivism most likely depends on which offenders receive the earned time and what type of help they receive when they reenter society.  Are they only low risk non-violent offenders or higher risk violent offenders, and what types of crimes do they commit while on early release, if any?  Oregon should limit earned time to 20% until such time as there is an Oregon earned time study by an independent person or organization that conducts a scientifically-valid study.  Then the legislature will have solid data for decision making in this most important area.

Finally, the increase in earned time to 30% through House Bill 3508 in the 2009 legislature caused significant trauma to many victims and made violent offenders eligible for earlier release.  Senate Bill 1007 in the 2010 legislative special session fixed many of the earned time problems in HB 3508, but it did not completely repeal earned time in excess of 20%.  On July 1, 2011, earned time will once again increase to 30% for 2 years for some offenders, almost all of whom are non-violent.  The 2011 legislature may wish to return to 20% until the study suggested above is completed.

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