Trade Prison For Diploma?

Concord — Two years after a bill that would have allowed young adult prisoners to shave time off their sentences through education was narrowly defeated in the Legislature, one that would do virtually the same thing — albeit with a twist — is heading for a floor vote.

The bill, which comes before the House on Jan. 8, would allow any inmate between 17 and 25 years old to earn time off their minimum sentence by completing education and other rehabilitative programs. Prisoners would receive 90 days off their sentence for completing a GED program, 120 days for obtaining a high school diploma, and 180 days for an associate or bachelor’s degree. They could also whittle up to 60 days off by completing vocational, mental health or family support programming.

Prisoners would pay for any degrees they receive, according to the bill’s sponsors. Only inmates in low- and minimum-security levels could apply the earned time credits.

The bill does not override the state parole board’s discretion as to an inmate’s release, but it could expedite the date on which some young inmates are eligible for parole. No more than 13 months of an eligible offender’s sentence could be waived.

The bill, HB 649, received unanimous support last month from the House committee on criminal justice, which had been studying it since spring. But members only did so after they amended the bill to avoid affecting a state policy known as “truth in sentencing,” which mandates that inmates fully serve their minimum sentences before becoming eligible for parole. Overturning the policy remains politically controversial.

Under the amended bill, judges would have the option to designate a portion of a young prisoner’s sentence as eligible for dismissal through the earned time credits. Offenders currently incarcerated would also be eligible for the credits, but they would have to be recommended by the commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and obtain approval from the sentencing court.

Proponents of the bill say it will encourage meaningful rehabilitation and thus reduce the state’s recidivism rate, currently hovering around 43 percent.

“This bill before us today will offer incentives for our prisoners to better themselves, thus becoming less of a burden on society, and thus, it will save the state money in the long term, hopefully money which will eventually be available for additional education programs,” Rep. Steven Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican and member of the committee, wrote this month in a brief on its support of the bill.

Rep. Gene Charron, a Chester Republican and former superintendent at the Rockingham County jail, said reducing the state’s recidivism rate is a critical and ongoing challenge.

“Some people will say, ‘I don’t give a damn,’ ” said Charron, a sponsor of the bill. “But you know what? Most of the people in the state prison are coming home. So how do you want them to come home? With an education? With a trade?”

The bill has the support of the Department of Corrections, according to sponsors. But it has yet to win over the chairwoman of the parole board, Donna Sytek. A staunch supporter of “truth in sentencing” and critic of past attempts to change it, she said she was pleased with the bill’s amendment, because “everyone — offender, victim, prosecutor, defense, public — knows that any sentence might have a reduction of up to 13 months.”

But Sytek has reservations about how it would apply to criminals already in prison. Under the amendment, she said, inmates currently incarcerated would be eligible for reduced time, but only if the sentencing court approves it first.

“While it requires the sentencing court to approve the reduction, other interested parties including the victim and the public are not in the loop,” Sytek said.

Sytek said the bill was also flawed because it does not account for the fact that programming — educational and otherwise — has been largely gutted from the state prison system.

“I’m not sure what kind of mental health programs the sponsors had in mind, or what would constitute ‘participation’ in them,” Sytek told the justice committee in February, regarding a nearly identical bill that was later dropped in exchange for HB 649. “Taking medication? Attending group therapy? With the vast majority of the prison population having substance abuse problems, there is already a waiting list for the sole remaining program, Living in Balance.”

Living in Balance, a 72-hour substance abuse program, has since been discontinued due to lack of staffing, Sytek said yesterday.

“The bill promises more than it can deliver,” she said.

But Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat and vice chairman of the justice committee, said the bill was never intended as a panacea.

“I would hope this is part of an ongoing conversation about how we create a criminal justice system that works and reduces recidivism,” Cushing said. “And one of the things we know is that inmates who receive more education are less likely to recidivate. This is a step forward.”

Cushing and Vaillancourt said the bill could potentially save the state money in the long run, by chipping away at the recidivism rate and therein reducing the taxpayer cost to house criminal.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, said the political climate of the House will prove more accepting this time around than in 2012. He also noted that this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“They’re not getting off scot-free,” D’Allesandro said. “Any time behind the walls is tough. Good conduct, earned time — I think it’s a good thing.”