I have a new paper on SSRN entitled “Solving the Good Time Puzzle: Why Following the Rules Should Get You Out of Prison Early.” Most U.S. jurisdictions permit inmates to obtain credit toward early release based on good behavior in prison. It’s not immediately clear, though, why the severity of a prison sentence should vary depending on how well an offender follows the rules while incarcerated. No amount of good or bad conduct in prison is capable of changing the seriousness of the underlying crime for which the offender is being punished.
The most common justification for good time is probably that it makes the job of prison administrators easier by giving them an additional set of incentives and sanctions to hold over inmates. Critics question, however, whether the potential loss of good time really does add anything to the deterrent effect of much more immediate sanctions, such as disciplinary segregation. Critics also object that the loss of good time — functionally an extension of the prison term — is not a just and proportionate response to rules violations that may be relatively technical and harmless and that need not be proven through formal trial-type proceedings.
In the paper, I argue that good time can thought of and justified in a different light. In essence, I suggest that good conduct in prison can be conceptualized as a form of partial atonement for the underlying crime. If seen in this way, good-time credits can be justified as a way of recognizing atonement, which seems to me an appropriate objective for the criminal-justice system.