House approves ban on ‘good time’ for serious offenders already in prison

Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, February 5, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A proposal to prohibit serious offenders from earning time off their prison sentences for good behavior won preliminary approval from the Vermont House on Tuesday.

For nearly 40 years, Vermont allowed incarcerated people to earn “good time” off their sentences for staying out of trouble. That program was suspended in 2005, reinstated in 2019 and adjusted again last year.

This year’s legislation, S.18, comes in response to an “unforeseen consequence” of last year’s action, said Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, who presented the bill.

Sullivan said most of the serious offenders to whom the bill would apply were incarcerated under plea bargains. Those plea bargains, she said, were agreed to based on an understanding from victims and their families of how much time a perpetrator would serve — without knowing that they might be able to earn time off that sentence.

“It is understandable that many victims of crimes and their families are quite upset about this,” Sullivan said.

The House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, on which Sullivan serves, heard testimony that laws allowing earned good time are effective at helping to manage the prison population, lower corrections costs and improve prison behavior. Such laws have no impact on public safety, Sullivan said. 

The bill originally referred to “good time earned” off a prison sentence. Sullivan said that has been amended to “time earned” because the time in question is “not necessarily good or bad.” It simply means an inmate didn’t get a disciplinary violation during that period.

Under current law, Vermont’s time earned program allows inmates to earn seven days off their prison sentences for every 30 days without a disciplinary violation. It’s available to all offenders except those sentenced to life without parole.

If the new legislation becomes law, people already in prison for serious crimes, such as murder, manslaughter, kidnapping and sexual assault, would no longer be able to earn time off their sentences.

However, anyone imprisoned in the future for those offenses would still have access to the “time earned” program, because victims will have been informed about the law and will be able to give their views on sentencing with that information in mind.

The bill requires that victims of serious crimes be notified at or before a sentencing hearing about how much earned time the defendant could accrue and the earliest possible date for them to be considered for release.

The bill wouldn’t necessarily mean perpetrators would be released when their minimum sentences were served, Sullivan said. Rather, they would be able to appear before parole boards and be eligible for an earlier release if the board allows it. 

Several lawmakers spoke in favor of the bill before its passage.

“This bill fixes, I’ll call it a Zoom mistake, that happened because the Committee on Institutions and Corrections did not get all the best information available,” said Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, who reported last year’s bill. “Apparently our victims of the most violent crimes were never aware that this bill was being formulated and passed.”

The House is expected to give the bill final approval on Wednesday. It cleared the Senate in February.

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Ellie French

About Ellie

Ellie French is a general assignment reporter and news assistant for VTDigger. She is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she interned for the Boston Business Journal and served as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper. She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota.

Email: [email protected]

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