Sentence Reduction Credit: The Basics

In several prior posts (including this one) I provided a link to the Department of Correction’s administrative regulation on sentence reduction credits.  I’ve written about the credits applicable in impaired driving cases, and just last week I wrote about a Supreme Court case on good time credit in the federal prison system. It occurs to me, though, that I’ve never actually written about the basic credit rules for garden-variety Structured Sentencing cases. So I thought I would do that today.

Sentence reduction credits are days of credit DOC can award to inmates as an incentive for good behavior, work, or program participation in prison. Don’t confuse sentence reduction credits with jail credit. Jail credit is time that a judge calculates and awards for time already spent in confinement as a result of the charge that culminated in the defendant’s sentence. G.S. 15-196.1 through -196.4. Sentence reduction credits, by contrast, are awarded by correctional authorities according to rules enacted by the Secretary of Correction under G.S. 148-13. For Structured Sentencing inmates, the secretary’s rules must comply with G.S. 15A-1340.13(d) for felonies and G.S. 15A-1340.20(d) for misdemeanors.” Earned time” is the primary sentence reduction credit available to those sentenced under Structured Sentencing.

For felons, earned time may not reduce the sentence below the minimum term set out on the sentencing grid. DOC rules set out three rates at which earned time may be awarded. Earned Time I is credit of two days per month for inmates who work four to six hours per day in unskilled jobs or low level activity. Earned Time II allows four days of credit per month for four to eight hours of skilled labor or moderate level activity each day. And Earned Time III is a credit of six days per month for at least six hours of skilled or high-level activity each day. It’s no coincidence that the maximum available credit (6 days, or about 20% of every month) roughly matches the differential between the minimum and maximum sentence for a felony (maximum sentences are, generally, 120% of the minimum, plus time for post-release supervision in appropriate cases, as discussed here). That means an inmate with the best possible prison job can work his or her way all the way down from the maximum to the minimum—assuming he or she starts working right away, which I’ll discuss more below. Earned time is subject to forfeiture for disciplinary infractions, but may also be restored if an inmate’s behavior improves. The Department also awards credit to disabled or medically unfit prisoners, granting four days per month to those unable to engage in any available job or program.

For misdemeanants, sentence reduction credit is capped at four days per month. That four day total includes earned time credit and any credit awarded under G.S. 162-60. That law allows the custodian of a jail, in his or her sole discretion, to award a credit to “persons convicted of misdemeanors or felonies” for “work on projects to benefit units of State or local government,” or to convicted misdemeanants who “faithfully participate[]” in a GED program or any other education, rehabilitation, or training program.

All inmates who are eligible for earned time are also eligible for “meritorious time.” Meritorious time can be awarded for acts of heroism or for things like working overtime, working in inclement weather, and special educational achievements like completing a degree. Meritorious credit is generally capped at 30 days for each act of exemplary conduct or degree earned, but it is also subject to the more general rule that total sentence reduction credits may not reduce a felon’s sentence below the statutory minimum, and may not reduce a misdemeanant’s sentence by more than four days per month for the total number of months of incarceration.

You can imagine that an inmate who arrives in prison with a substantial amount of jail credit under his belt will never be able to work his sentence down to his minimum through earned time alone. Suppose, for example, that an inmate arrives at DOC to serve a 20–24 month sentence after spending 10 months in pretrial confinement. That effectively leaves him with a 10–14 month sentence to serve (under G.S. 15-196.1, jail credit reduces both the maximum and the minimum). Even if he got a great (i.e., Earned Time III, 6-day-per-month) prison job right away, he would never be able to work a full four months off his maximum. His best-case scenario (absent meritorious time) would be release at 11.67 months—that’s the break point where actual time served plus credit equals the maximum.

So inmates with lengthy pretrial stints are disadvantaged when it comes to earned time credit potential. But must they be? Could a defendant ask DOC for earned time credit for work done in the jail during his or her pretrial confinement? Apparently, yes. I know there’s at least one jail that attaches a memo to a convicted defendant’s judgment informing DOC of any work performed in the jail. DOC honors the time, converting it into credit at the appropriate earned time level. This seems like a fair approach—and a win-win-win situation for the defendant, the jail, and DOC. The defendant is obviously happy to get as much credit as possible. The jail is able to offer pretrial and backlogged inmates (who make up the majority of its population) an incentive to work or complete programs. And it would surely free up some prison beds each year if more inmates arrived at DOC with some credit already in the bank. Not every jail will have the resources to offer work or programs for inmates, but those that can might consider working with DOC to see if credit is a possibility.