“Good Time” in Washington: A Model for Wisconsin?

In an earlier post, I argued that Wisconsin should consider reinstituting “good time” for prisoners, that is, credits toward accelerated release that can be earned based on good behavior.  An established program that Wisconsin might emulate is Washington’s.

Washington has long been regarded as a national leader in criminal justice.  Indeed, Wisconsin has previously borrowed from other Washington innovations, such as its “three strikes and you are out” law and its civil commitment program for sexually violent offenders.  Washington’s good-time law takes a balanced, moderate approach.  It is neither among the most generous nor the most stringent in the nation.

Notably, Washington’s recidivism rate has been consistently lower than both the national average and Wisconsin’s.  Although many factors contribute to a state’s recidivism rate, some research suggests that the incentives established by a well-designed good-time program may help to reduce repeat offending.

With the rules set forth here, the Washington program works like this:  

Most inmates qualify for a possible one-third reduction in their prison terms through earned release time (a/k/a “ERT,” Washington’s version of good time).  However, inmates convicted of a serious violent or sexual offense are limited to a ten-percent reduction.  Under either regime, ERT is based in part on participation in approved programs, including work and school.

ERT may be lost for the commission of a “serious infraction,” a category that is defined by regulation and encompasses a wide range of offenses from possession of an alcoholic beverage to escape. However, lost ERT may later be restored if the inmate manages to avoid any additional serious infractions over a twelve-month period.

Inmates who have reached their “earned release date,” that is, the release date taking into account any ERT reductions, may be required to present to the Department of Corrections a viable release plan, including approved residence and living arrangements. Release may be denied if the plan is unsatisfactory from the standpoint of recidivism risk or in other specified ways.

It seems to me that the standard one-third reduction in Washington nicely balances core competing interests — it is not so small as to be a meaningless reward for inmates, but not so large as to fundamentally change the scale of the sentence.  I would not favor, for instance, the one-half reduction available in some other states.

I also like that credits are based in part on program participation.  For some inmates, especially near the start of a prison term, merely avoiding disciplinary problems is a significant achievement that merits recognition.  After the settling-in period, though, we can and should expect more from most inmates; tying credits to program participation reinforces this expectation.  However, given the long waiting lists for programming at some institutions, I think Washington is right to recognize that inmates should not be penalized if they are simply unable to participate.

I think it is also a good idea that Washington has a safeguard to block the accelerated release of inmates who are not really ready to return to free society.  The trick is to ensure that release plan requirements are not unrealistic or administered arbitrarily.  Indeed, there have been some concerns that Washington’s system is a little unfair in this regard; in some years, nearly a quarter of all releases have been delayed based on the absence of an approved plan.  I would favor some sort of soft cap on how long a release can be delayed.  For instance, after six months, prison officials might be required to demonstrate that they have done all they can be reasonably be expected to do to prepare the inmate for release and help the inmate to develop a viable release plan.

Although various aspects of Washington’s program can be (and have been) criticized, it seems to me in broad outline an unusually thoughtful, balanced system, which other states might benefit from replicating.

Cross posted at Life Sentences.

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