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Pressed for cash, states let inmates go early

If Rhode Island wasn't so pressed for cash, Joshua Gomes might still be behind bars. Instead, he's working temp jobs and talks about going to college, teaching or joining the military.
Prisoners Early Release
Joshua Gomes, 24, of Central Falls, R.I., went to prison after stealing a man's wallet and robbing a convenience store to feed his cocaine habit. He was released in June after serving little more than half of his two-year sentence.Steven Senne / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

If the state weren't so pressed for cash, Joshua Gomes might still be behind bars. Instead, he's working temp jobs — at a construction site one week, a recycling plant another — and talks about going to college, teaching or joining the military.

The former cocaine addict and dealer had to prepare for his future sooner than expected: He was released from prison in June after serving a little more than half his two-year sentence, benefiting from a state law that allows certain prisoners to get out early if they commit to rehabilitation programs behind bars.

States under pressure to erase budget deficits and ease prison overcrowding are allowing inmates to shave greater amounts of time off their sentences through good behavior and participation in classes such as job training and substance abuse treatment.

Some victims' advocates and law enforcement professionals worry convicts released early will continue committing crimes, and they question whether rehabilitative programs offered behind bars can produce lasting improvements. But supporters say the law changes not only cut costs but also can motivate inmates — the overwhelming majority of whom eventually will be released — to acquire life skills to keep them from committing new crimes.

"I would rather have an inmate released three weeks earlier, knowing that he had dealt with his substance abuse addictions, than waiting the three weeks and releasing him untreated," Rhode Island corrections director A.T. Wall said.

Among new laws passed this year: Colorado now permits low-risk inmates 12 days per month of earned time instead of 10; Mississippi lifted a 180-day cap on earned time; and Oregon raised the amount of time inmates can deduct from their sentences for good behavior from 20 percent to 30 percent.

Gomes, 24, credits his substance abuse program with helping him appreciate how his behavior affected his family. He says the opportunity for early release gave him added drive to complete the months-long class.

"For the sake of going home a couple months earlier, yeah," Gomes said. "Guys are in there just to knock off a couple months off their sentence or make parole."

Nonviolent offenders
Murderers and inmates convicted of other violent crimes are generally excluded from extra credit, but drug dealers and thieves are among offenders who can benefit.

The measures come as prisons around the country have swelled with nonviolent, lower-level offenders who each can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year to keep locked up. California, which faces severe overcrowding, recently submitted a plan to cut its roughly 150,000-inmate prison population by 23,000 over two years.

Critics caution there's no guarantee inmates who acquire drug treatment or job skills will avoid trouble after their releases.

"If they cared about getting their rehabilitation, they'd be in this program without having this carrot dangled in front of them," said John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which opposes a proposal in Ohio to increase time off from one day per month to five.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that under a 2003 state law allowing some nonviolent offenders to earn 50 percent off their sentences, inmates released early were less likely to commit new crimes than similar offenders who stayed in prison longer.

The institute projected a slight increase in property crime as more nonviolent offenders are freed but concluded the benefits outweighed the risk.

Penn State University criminologist Doris MacKenzie said states are wise to broaden the incentives since research shows rehabilitative programs can work even when prisoners are coerced into them.

Prison population down
Rhode Island revised its earned time statute last year. Now, virtually all inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses can deduct up to 10 days per month for good behavior, two per month for having prison jobs and five per month for participating in treatment programs. There's a one-time 30-day credit for class completion.

Prison officials credit the law change with helping reduce the prison population from 3,840 in July 2008 to 3,689 in June, though they don't have data on how many have reoffended.

Gomes said he was a strong student and soccer player in hardscrabble Central Falls but began selling cocaine after marveling at the money drug-dealing friends made. He was sentenced to two years in March 2008 after pickpocketing a man and stealing cigarettes from a convenience store. He got out June 1.

Now on probation, he said he's sober, undergoing drug treatment and urine screenings and making regular visits with his probation officer, who says she's optimistic about his future but acknowledges some ex-inmates under her supervision face more obstacles ahead after getting early release.

Gomes' criminal convictions are a setback. But, he says, "I haven't really burned my bridge completely."

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