Study Examines Race in Access to Early Release Credits in Federal Prisons

Sentencing

Associate Professor Travis Franklin examines race/ethnicity in "good time" federal benefits.
scales of justice, gavel and law books

Latinos and Native Americans were more likely to be denied access to “good time” benefits during their incarcerations in federal prisons when compared with White and African American offenders, and Asian inmates fared better than all groups in obtaining access to these benefits, according to a study by researchers at Sam Houston State University.

In federal prisons, inmates statutorily are barred from receiving good time credit for early release unless their sentence is more than one year in length. When judges sentence offenders to one year, they usually add one additional day to their sentence to ensure their eligibly for good time credit. Judges, however, choose not to append this additional day in about 20 percent of cases, which effectively bars some groups from good time.

“These findings corroborate race patterns found not only in prior research on federal sentencing but also in the broader literature examining state court sentencing,” said Travis Franklin, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University.

Photo of Professor Travis FranklinThe study, by Franklin and Tri Keah Henry, was based on a review of 4,589 inmate files from the U.S. Sentencing Commission between 2010 and 2012. Good time credit typically is based on good behavior behind bars or offered for participating in education or rehabilitative programs. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 allows federal inmates to earn up to 54 days a year, an average of a 15 percent reduction in sentencing length.

Based on the study, Native Americans were 80 percent more likely to be denied access to good time credit and Latinos were 35 percent more likely to be denied the benefit than Whites or African Americans. On the other hand, Asian offenders were 45 percent more likely than Whites or African Americans to gain access to good time.

In addition to corroborating patterns found in federal and state courts, these findings suggest that prevalent race-based stereotypes may influence courts’ assessment of an offender’s dangerousness or blameworthiness.

“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 (i.e., those selected for 1-year sentences),” Franklin said. “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.”

One of the surprises in the study was the parity between Whites and African Americans on the issue of “good time” access. The authors suggest that given the high-profile history of racial bias, judges may have developed cognitive skills to avoid implicit bias.

“One Day Makes All the Difference Denying Federal Offenders Access to 'Good Time' Through Sentencing” was published in Crime and Delinquency.

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