Honor the will of the voters, expand good conduct credit rules for inmates

A plan to expand good conduct credit rules that could speed up release of some California inmates has become a hotly debated topic in the last few months leading to a contentious back and forth between judges.

In December, a judge placed a temporary hold on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plan to expand good conduct credit rules for non-violent, second strike inmates. Then last month, the temporary hold ended, but four days later it was reinstated.

Fearmongering has led to a campaign against this vital step in decreasing the number of people incarcerated. The plan to increase good conduct credits has become a carrot dangled in the face of incarcerated individuals that are working toward release and are waiting to be reunited with their families, friends and community.

A study conducted by Stanford Law Professor A. Mitchell Polinsky shows incentivising inmates with an opportunity to earn reduced time is proven to encourage good behavior while incarcerated.

Polinsky found that earning reduced time is a better incentive than earning privileges while in prison. Earning good conduct credits may deter incarcerated individuals from committing crimes in the future while also encouraging greater participation in rehabilitative and educational programs in prison.

The new good conduct credit rules are a great way to encourage good behavior, reduce the prison population and lower prison costs, which is crucial in a system that costs about $13.3 billion a year to operate.

The new early release rules would decrease the prison population, an issue the state has been working on for years. With fewer people incarcerated, prison operating costs would be reduced. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the annual cost for California to keep an individual in prison is more than $106,000.

The government can redirect the money to better help those impacted by the criminal legal system by providing job and educational opportunities and housing support. When we invest in formerly incarcerated individuals, we’re taking vital steps toward ending mass incarceration. When we support formerly incarcerated individuals, we’re supporting their families, their communities and their future.

And this is what Californians want.

The recent court decision to pause the planned expansion of good conduct credits is an affront to the will of the voters, who overwhelmingly passed Proposition 57 in support of expanding credit-earning opportunities.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prop. 57 “gave CDCR the authority to make credit changes to reduce the prison population and incentivize incarcerated people.”

For decades, national and local politicians have called for prison reform through rehabilitation programs, and California has positioned itself as a leader among those reforms.

But 28 of California’s 58 district attorneys moving to block the plan signifies a lack of desire to implement something that could benefit society by reducing prison population and redirecting millions of dollars. Yet, those in the California criminal legal system opposed to increasing good conduct credits are actively choosing to keep rehabilitation out of reach for those who are doing everything right while incarcerated.

This broken promise undercuts the will of California voters and keeps incarcerated individuals away from their families, which is a clear step backward for a state whose leaders champion it as having “one of the most progressive” criminal legal systems in the nation.

The pause needs to be lifted and good conduct credits must be expanded to provide incarcerated individuals a resource that will get them one step closer to home.

Officials must not choose to succumb to fearmongering and ignore a promise made to the thousands of people behind bars in California.

Chala Bonner is the civic Engagement organizer of Safe Return Project. This commentary was written for CalMatters.