Latino, Native American prisoners least likely to get early-release option

A federal marshal guards prisoners.
(Shane T. McCoy/ U. S. Marshals Service)

February 14, 2018

Federal courts are less likely to give Latinos and Native Americans the option of getting out of prison early for good behavior, a new study suggests. Offenders who are Asian, on the other hand, are the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to be allowed to earn “good time” credit.

The issue: For decades, researchers have examined how a person’s race or ethnicity may influence criminal sentencing decisions. But they have focused on two areas of sentencing: sentence length and whether or not to incarcerate. Little is known about the role race or ethnicity might play in a judge’s decision to give or deny a prisoner the ability to earn time for good behavior — “good time” credits that can be subtracted from their prison sentences.

If a federal court allows a prisoner to earn good time credits, the prisoner can earn a credit of up to 54 days per year of incarceration. Inmates can earn time for good behavior if the federal Bureau of Prisons determines they have “displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.” Good conduct often is also contingent upon participating in educational and rehabilitative programs, including making progress toward earning a GED or high school diploma.

Two groups of prisoners cannot earn good time credits: inmates serving life sentences and those with sentences of one year or less. For offenders facing a sentence of about a year, a federal judge has multiple options. For example, the judge can sentence them to one year in prison, precluding them from earning time off for good behavior. A judge also can sentence them to one year and one day in prison plus grant them access to good time credit, potentially reducing the time they spend behind bars significantly.

A new study looks at which types of offenders are more likely to be denied the option of earning credit toward an early release.

A study worth reading: “One Day Makes All the Difference: Denying Federal Offenders Access to ‘Good Time’ Through Sentencing” published in Crime & Delinquency, 2018.

Study summary: Researchers Travis W. Franklin and Tri Keah S. Henry of Sam Houston State University looked at federal sentencing data from the United States Sentencing Commission for fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012. They focused on offenders who were U.S. citizens and had sentences in the one-year range, noting who was granted and denied access to good time credit. Most of the 4,589 offenders in the sample were men with an average age of 38 years.

Key findings:

  • Black and white offenders were treated similarly.
  • The odds of a Latino offender being denied access to good time credits were 35 percent higher than that of a white offender. The odds were 80 percent higher for a Native American offender.
  • Asian offenders made up 3 percent of the total sample, but only 1 percent of the offenders denied the ability to earn time for good behavior.
  • “Although federal law clearly defines which offenders are eligible to receive access to good time, there is no guidance for determining which of these offenders should actually receive this access, among those who fall at the threshold of eligibility … When operating in these gaps, it is plausible that perceptual shorthands or biases of courtroom workers may play a more pronounced role in the decision-making process.”

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Citation: Franklin, Travis W.; Henry, Tri Keah S. “One Day Makes All the Difference: Denying Federal Offenders Access to ‘Good Time ’ Through Sentencing,” Crime & Delinquency, 2018. DOI: 10.1177/0011128716682227.