A small next step for criminal justice reform: Fix good time credit

A small next step for criminal justice reform: Fix good time credit
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Both sides of the aisle have rightfully come together on criminal justice reform, including passing the First Step Act. The New York Times said this signature legislation addressing unfairness in the criminal justice system involved some of “the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation.” Both sides also agree, however, that a lot still needs to be done to address a system that incarcerates more people than Russia and China.

The current federal system awards good time credit — 15 percent — for all prisoners who behave. That means for every year done in prison, you receive 54 days off in good time credit.

For a long time, the Bureau of Prisons only gave 47 days of credit, but the First Step Act told BOP that 15 percent was really 15 percent and prisoners should get the full 54 days. Even with this directive, BOP has refused to give this credit, saying that there is an error in the statute, and has asked for Congress to reiterate that it really wants the 54 days of credit applied. This is completely absurd, and both parties agree that this should be fixed immediately. In addition to fixing the 54-day issue, there is one additional modest (and hopefully non-controversial) proposal that should be included.

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As it stands, federal prisoners only receive good time credit if they are sentenced to more than a year of prison. That means that if you are sentenced to a year and a day, you will receive 15 percent off with good time and serve about 10 months; however, if you receive a sentence of exactly one year in prison, no such good time credit will be applied, and you will serve that year day for day. That means that the prisoner who receives a longer sentence of a year and a day will serve less time than someone who is sentenced to a year or 11 months. It makes no sense.

Those who are sentenced to the lowest sentences — the lowest-risk offenders — should get the most benefit for good time, not the other way around.

Other important good time proposals should be considered as well. For example, inmates who take advantage of classes and programming should receive additional credits.

Studies have shown that good time programs enhance public safety and will obviously save costs. As of now, the only good time program available on an extremely limited basis is for drug and alcohol treatment. Those who qualify as needing the program (i.e., those with a drug and alcohol problem) and have sentences of longer than three years, can get reductions for up to a year for participating. But again, those with no drug problem or those with shorter sentences cannot participate. These are issues that can and should be addressed. 

But small steps first. Congress should ensure those low-risk offenders with sentences of less than a year receive good time credit.

David Oscar Markus is criminal defense attorney at Markus/Moss in Miami. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. He tries criminal cases and argues criminal appeals throughout the country. Follow him on Twitter @domarkus.