Dem wants prisoner ‘good time’ credits brought back, reversing ‘tough-on-crime’ measures

By: - October 3, 2021 3:01 am

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Michigan Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) introduced legislation last week that would reinstate “good time credits” in the Michigan prison system. 

“Good time” credits are a system that enables inmates to earn credits based on following the rules and academic and professional program participation and gain with the intent for prisoners to be able to be released early on good behavior.

Irwin’s package, Senate Bills 649652, would restore good time credits in Michigan prisons. Irwin’s bills establish a system where inmates could earn thirty days of credit for thirty days of good behavior, effectively knocking off time on their prison sentence. Michigan is currently one of six states that does not have any type of good credit system in place. 

Sen. Jeff Irwin at a Sen. Bernie Sanders rally in Ann Arbor, March 8, 2020 | Andrew Roth

The state had a “good time” credit system in place until it was dismantled by a ballot initiative in 1978. In place of “good time” credits, the state established “disciplinary credits” in 1982 that were abolished in 1998 with the enactment of Truth-in-Sentencing laws. These laws required that people serve the entirety of their minimum sentence and would subject them to a “disciplinary time” program that would increase a person’s prison time for any misconduct citations. 

Irwin’s Senate Bill 0651 would eliminate any reference to “disciplinary time.”

In an interview with the Advance this week, Irwin said reinstituting good time credits would enable long-time prisoners who have “followed the rules” and “stayed out of trouble” to be able to return to their communities and mandate the government to “stop paying for their room board.”

“Good time credits were originally eliminated as part of a get-tough-on-crime philosophy that was very popular in the ‘90s, but that now upon reflection, was clearly a huge failure,” Irwin said. “If we were to pass legislation like mine, I think it’s very reasonable to assume that we could save hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of the next decade by simply releasing people who have spent a long time in prison already, and have demonstrated through the time they served [that] they are good candidates for release.” 

According to the House Fiscal Agency Budget Briefing on Corrections, the state of Michigan spent $31,222 per prisoner in 2018. 

According to another report released in 2019 by Safe and Just Michigan, Michigan taxpayers pay an estimated $456 million annually on incarcerated people who are serving a prison system of 20 or more years. Troy Rienstra, Safe and Just’s outreach director, told the Advance in 2019 that Michigan prisoners will serve 127% of their sentence and spend more time in prison than in any other state.  

Since the erasure of “good time” credits were cemented in the state Constitution via ballot measure, three-fourths of the Legislature would have to vote in favor of re-establishing the credits in order for it to be enacted. That’s a tough hurdle with a GOP-controlled Legislature, although many bipartisan criminal justice reform bills were enacted last term, including legislation expunging minor offenses and “Raise the Age” juvenile justice reforms. 

Irwin’s bills, however, only have Democratic co-sponsors. They have been referred to the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, chaired by Sen. Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville), who did not respond to a request for comment.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

An attempt to get a measure to restore good time credits on the 2020 ballot was attempted through the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act, but organizers fell short of the signatures necessary to get it on the ballot due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Irwin also introduced the bills under Senate Bill 12401243 last session, but the bills were referred to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, where they died.

Despite previous failed attempts at re-establishing “good time” credits, Irwin believes that there has been growing support among conservative politicians to consider ways to cut costs that come along with the criminal justice system, and that his bill does just that. 

“One of the things that we’ve seen over the course of the last few years is that there are more and more conservatives who are thinking about smart justice, rather than ‘get tough on crime,’” Irwin said. “They’re thinking about how can we make this system work better for public safety, and cost less? And so there is a real point of agreement that we have, and that we can work with.” 

Irwin also emphasized that initiatives like his will spark conversation around the cost of the criminal justice system and in turn citizens will begin to push lawmakers to make changes to cut the high cost of Michigan’s prison system.

In a press release from Michigan Justice Advocacy, an advocacy group lobbying for criminal justice reform, said the bill will provide “positive incentive for behavioral growth” which will reduce “the likelihood of recidivism.” The organization also said they hope the bill will “create a safer society.

“With the current shortage of corrections officers, growing cost of incarceration and numerous reentry programs across the state, Michigan has never been more ready to address being [number one] in the country for length of time served,” the group said in a press release. “These credits would provide critical relief to Michigan’s overcrowded prisons, creating a safer environment both for corrections officers and those who are incarcerated.”


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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.