If you have not heard the news, DOC recently canceled parts of its policies that award certain credits each month to inmates.1 After seeking political cover, or “guidance,” as stated in the Letter of Counsel from the AG’s Office, DOC did what it should have done some time ago.2 That is not to say that awarding the credits was unnecessary when the credits began in 2009 or when DOC increased the credits in 2014 and 2016 to alleviate the overcrowding when the Legislature was not yet taking seriously the issues plaguing DOC.
The type of credits that DOC canceled were achievement credits. It did not cancel all achievement credits; instead, it canceled only those achievement credits connected to programs that were “programs” in name only. Inmates will continue to receive achievement credits for completing treatment programs (substance abuse treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc.) and education programs. Also, inmates will continue to receive earned credits, at least those the law allows to receive them.3
In 2009, DOC began awarding 15 achievement credits to inmates every four months, so long as they did not get in trouble during that time.4 After receiving the directive to empty the county jails of the more than 1,500 inmates awaiting transport to DOC, for which DOC had no beds, DOC increased the achievement credits to 15 achievement credits every month in 2014.4 Then, in 2016, DOC began awarding 30 achievement credits every month for every inmate in a community corrections center, halfway house, or work release center (and eliminated awarding credits for participation in the work-release program) because placement in one of those facilities automatically meant the inmate was in what it deemed a reentry program.4
After State Question 788 (reducing all simple possession of drug crimes and most property crimes in which the value was less than $1,000 from felonies to misdemeanors) took effect in 2017 and the Legislature passed some reform measures in 2018, the justification for these credits no longer existed as a means to operate an overcrowded prison system on the verge of disaster. While many may view the canceling of the credits as a step backward, I do not believe that is the case. The stress on DOC’s system is not as bad as it was due to some decline in the number of inmates. It returns DOC’s policies to a stricter adherence to the statutory provisions regarding awarding achievement credits. If more credits are the solution, that is a policy decision the Legislature must make and not an executive agency acting on its own.
The existence of these policies also demonstrates the leadership DOC had in 2009, 2014, and 2016 and how those in charge were willing to step up and deal with a crisis while the Legislature was not. What would have happened had these credits not been made available? Imagine how much worse the population crisis within DOC could have been.
There are no doubt inmates and inmates’ families who now must deal with an expected release date farther in the future, but they should be thankful for any of these credits they received. The credits were not intended to help the inmates. The inmates did not achieve anything to receive the credits. It was not about good conduct – earned credits are tied to conduct and misconducts can result in the revocation of credits – nor was it about reentry. It was all about pushing inmates out the door a little faster to create additional bed space for the inmates waiting to come into the system.
It was no secret within DOC that the justification for awarding these credits as achievement credits - connected with a “program” - was a bit of a stretch. DOC did not need guidance from the AG’s Office to tell them that. They likely wanted cover to deflect blame elsewhere for pulling the rug out from under most inmates who had grown accustomed to receiving these credits every month. DOC should have ended these credits no later than 2018. However, now they have the guidance from an assistant attorney general – an assistant to the Chief Legal Officer for the State – telling them they should not continue awarding these credits. So the credits are no longer being awarded. Inmates should be thankful for receiving any of these credits before DOC cancelled them.
1 To view the memo cancelling the credits, click here.
2 To view the Letter of Counsel, click here.