I ran across an article in the June 22, 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Entitled “Sheriff Reduces Jail Time for Georgia Inmates Who Saved Officer,” the content of the piece written by Ellen Eldridge rattled around in my head. My first impression was positive. Of course, there are good Samaritans in jails and prisons. However, as I thought further, a few problems started to percolate in my mind—thoughts that began to disturb me.
The story is straightforward. Here’s the gist of the article:
- Six inmates in the Polk County jail, while on work detail, rushed to help an officer who had passed out in the afternoon heat.
- One inmate used the fallen man’s cell phone to call 911.
- The inmates removed the officer’s outer vest to help cool him down.
- Polk County sheriff Johnny Moats said he would credit the six inmates with four days for every one served in the jail (instead of the three they earn for being on a work detail).
Good Time Credits
Credit for good time served is part of jail and prison system policy in over half the states. The Tacoma (WA) News Tribune reports that “good time” for following the rules is offered in at least twenty-nine states. In Polk County, inmates currently receive two days good time served for each day they spend in jail, and volunteers for work detail receive three days for every one served. Anything that advances the days on the calendar is a blessing to incarcerated people.
Along these same lines, in November 2016, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 57. This proposition created a mandate by way of an amendment to the California Constitution (Article I, Section 32) that put in place rules for increasing time-served credits for sustained good behavior and for participation in approved rehabilitative or educational programs. The new prison time credits became effective May 1, 2017; they are cumbersome, complicated, and a move in the right direction. The amendment applies to persons serving jail and prison time.
So, What’s My Problem?
- In the Georgia case, there’s no guarantee the inmates will receive the credits reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sheriff Motes equivocated: “If I’m in court when they go, I would stand up and let them know what they did.” What if he could only attend some but not all six sentence restructuring hearings? It’s not clear if the credits would be received without his personal appearance at a court hearing. Otherwise, why would he make such a statement?
- The Sheriff is also quoted as saying “I can’t do that [grant extra credit days] if they are sentenced to prison.” This is because of the laws in Georgia.
- In the state of Georgia, “There is no good time, gained time, or earned time applied to prison sentences in Georgia.”
States are inconsistent in the rules they adopt for good behavior credits in their jails and prisons. Georgia and California are examples of different states’ philosophies on the subject. From my personal experience, inmates in California jails start to earn good behavior credits from day one. Georgia has a similar approach. However, Georgia’s policy of not awarding good behavior credit for state prison inmates is oppressive and uninspiring.
Stripping inmates of earned extra credits for doing extraordinary deeds such as coming to the rescue of a fallen officer is counterintuitive. Inmates in Georgia’s jail system who know they’re heading to a Georgia state prison have no incentive to come to the rescue of anyone—officer or inmate—other than for pure good Samaritan reasons. If the inmates had known human-relief action credits would not have been awarded under that state’s sentencing system, the Georgia story might have had a different ending.
California is to be commended for amending its constitution to incorporate smart reasoning: good time credit incentives accelerate inmates’ release and relieve prison overcrowding. Knowing time will be knocked off one’s sentence provides an uplifting, positive mental boost. This boost helps maintain order and discipline by mitigating sentence severity and allowing an accurate prediction of an inmate’s release date.
There’s a lesson to be learned from the federal prison system. All inmates serving a term of more than a year (except for those serving life sentences) in all federal prisons, regardless of which state a prison facility is located in, may earn fifty-four days off their sentences each year for following prison rules and exhibiting good behavior.
The prison reform issue here is that standardization by the states for good time release credits should follow the federal rule. The opportunity to earn equal good time credits for early release is humane and incentivizing. The way Georgia and California handle the same issue is discriminatory based upon what state a person finds himself or herself incarcerated in.
What are your experiences or thoughts on this subject?
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