MONTPELIER – Vermont lawmakers are continuing to explore changes to a recently enacted rule that allows inmates to earn time off their sentence for good behavior.
The good time rule was passed last year as part of a larger reform package, and went into effect on January 1. It allows inmates to get up to seven days off their sentence each month they meet a set of good behavior requirements.
In the following weeks, there was criticism and concern from victims of serious crimes over the possibility of early release for offenders. The legislature began exploring the possibility of disqualifying certain offenders from receiving good time, including those charged with murder, kidnapping, sexual assault or lewd and lascivious conduct with a child.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan played a major role in the initial rule, and spoke with the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions on Wednesday. He told lawmakers it was a mistake to not gather feedback from the victims of serious crimes.
“I got it wrong,” Donovan said. “I didn’t think as deeply as I should have about the impact it would have not only on victims, but victims’ families.”
Donovan believes the latest proposal for earned good time in Vermont strikes a balance between meaningful reform and victims’ rights and safety. Victims of serious crimes and their families who have opened up to Vermont lawmakers about the fear surrounding a possible early release of an offender wouldn’t have to worry about that under the new proposal.
“These cases that have been previously adjudicated, we’re not going to change that sentence,” Donovan said. “We have to say that these words matter, and we have to remain consistent with the sentence that was imposed for the most serious cases.”
Those facing charges for a serious crime after the bill goes into effect, however, would be offered a pathway to make their case for earned time.
“You create a process. It’s not automatic, but it’s a process,” Donovan said. “You have notice. You have a hearing… Whether or not someone is entitled to it or not would really be a question for the judge.”
When the initial earned good time rule began on January 1, victims told Vermont lawmakers that they were largely in the dark about its details, which was one of the more troubling pieces of the discussion for Rep. Karen Dolan (D-Chittenden).
“It sounds like there’s a gap in the system, there’s a lot of victims that weren’t heard didn’t know this law was being discussed,” Dolan said.
This version of the bill passed the senate in February, and will go to a vote in the House after clearing the committee.
“We didn’t have the conversations with the victims early on in this. They were clear with me, you got it wrong, you didn’t think about us. They were right, and I think that is something that is the lesson here,” Donovan said.
In January, The ACLU of Vermont said it supports the initial scope of the ‘good time’ law, and Advocacy Director Falko Schilling said that when a system starts excluding certain people, it gets more complicated to administer.
“This is in no way a get out of jail free card, this is a law that is in effect now, and it would require people who have earned the possibility of reducing their sentences to go before a parole board and make their case, where victims also have the opportunity to testify,” Schilling said. “We support making sure this system is available to everyone who’s incarcerated, because it’s one of the best tools we have to safely reduce our prison population.”