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February 29. 2012 12:15AM

Bill offers early release from prison

CONCORD — A prominent member of the Adult Parole Board is speaking out against a bill that would allow inmates to reduce their minimum sentences by completing classes while in jail.

Parole board member Donna Sytek says House Bill 1654 would undermine the state's truth-in-sentencing law, which she was instrumental in passing.

“Victims like to know if a perpetrator is sent away for five to ten years, they're not going to have to worry about seeing him earlier now because he got a Ph.D.,” said Sytek, a Republican who served as House Speaker in the late 1990s.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee approved HB 1654 earlier this month, and it's scheduled for a floor vote in the House at its next session, on March 7.

The bill offers prisoners who complete training programs and degrees while incarcerated the chance to have their sentences reduced. Inmates could get up to 60 days off their minimum sentence for completing a vocational program; 90 days off for passing their GED (General Educational Development) test; 120 days off for a high school diploma, and 180 days off for completing degree programs, from an associate's to a doctorate.

Time off would be awarded for each degree completed.

Prisoners are already able reduce their sentences through good behavior and meeting other conditions set by the parole board, including the completion of education and rehabilitation programs. However, prisoners cannot be paroled any earlier than the minimum term of a sentence.

Should the parole board extend a sentence, the time off for education could be applied to the maximum term.

Sytek said that there is a fundamental difference between the House bill and SB 500, the controversial 2010 law that mandated the release of prisoners nine months before the end of their sentences and their placement in supervisory programs. Sytek, who was a strong backer of SB 500, noted that in its case, early release only applied to the maximum sentence, not the minimum.

Supporters of the bill, which is sponsored by five Republicans and five Democrats, said it would encourage inmates to use their time in prison in a productive way that would improved their chances for success upon release.

“This could provide minor and very few exceptions to the absolutes of truth in sentencing,” said Rep. Philip Ginsburg, D-Durham, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “We felt in these cases (truth in sentencing) was outweighed by the benefit of providing some incentive to prisoners to better themselves through education.”

Ginsburg said it was unlikely that the bill, if passed, would significantly reduce the prison population, which is one of the main goals of opponents of truth-in-sentencing laws.

Officials with both the Attorney General's Office and Department of Corrections testified against the bill at the hearing.

Assistant DOC Commissioner William McGonagle said the bill raised basic issues of fairness, as well as the prospect of legal action. “If you have someone with a learning disability, they would be barred from many of these programs,” he said. “I imagine some of the disabilities rights folks would have issues around that.”

He added that since inmates must pay for degree programs on their own, the policy could essentially allow inmates with the means to buy time off their sentences.

If there is a consensus among bill backers and detractors it is that for the time being few inmates would be able to take advantage of prison vocational programs and basic education classes. There are long wait lists to get in the classes, and budget constraints could force further reductions in the programs.

Sytek said her greatest concern was the threat the bill posed to a cornerstone of the state's commitment to crime victims. “I'm the self-appointed guardian of truth-in-sentencing,” she said. “I'm taking care of my baby.”


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