Crime victims support legislative fix of ‘earned time’ law

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 6:27 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers this past session tweaked a new law that gives inmates ‘good time’ off their sentences for good behavior behind bars. Until recently, that law applied to all convicted criminals, but crime victims pushed for changes when it comes to violent offenders.

The earned time rule lets inmates eliminate up to a week off of their sentence each month if they don’t receive disciplinary violations. In other words, people sentenced to four years, could get out in three if they are model inmates. A law that went into effect in January expanded earned time to perpetrators of all crimes, even those in prison already.

Taylor Fontaine, a teacher and survivor of sexual assault, says she was blindsided when she found out her attacker would have been able to get out of his 12-year sentence earlier than expected. “I was really shocked and couldn’t focus on what was at hand. I called my mom and was like, ‘What’s going on? We need to figure this out,’” she said.

Offenders often go to prison after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors. Those deals, which include recommended sentencing, are agreed to by victims and their families. Changes to the earned time rule that went into effect meant Fontaine’s attacker was eligible to get time off even though she never agreed to it. “I don’t get time off for my victim sentence, so why does he get time off for being good?” she said.

Fontaine and her mother, Pamela, reached out to Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, and they testified before lawmakers. “When you find that people who actually, who have hurt other people are getting more of a chance than the victims are, it’s just like, what’s wrong with this picture?” Pamela said.

Coming forward with their story, lawmakers say, was key to changing the law. Now, over 200 people already in prison for murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, and other serious crimes can not earn time off their sentences if they were sentenced before Jan. 1, 2021, though they can keep the time they earned from January to April, when the law was updated.

While violent offenders going forward will still be eligible for earned time, victims and their families will be now be made aware of that at sentencing.

The earned time program is part of Vermont’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, an effort over the last few decades to save money in the criminal justice system and reinvest those dollars in treatment. “All of these strategies together were presented as a way to reduce the use of correctional facility beds,” said Monica Weeber with the Vermont Department of Corrections.

Now that the clarification is law, Fontaine says she appreciates feeling heard by the decision-makers. “It was reassurance that the state was hearing from victims and that they wanted to right a wrong,” she said.

After her experience helping change the law, Fontaine says she’s now working with organizations to improve outreach and communication with victims.

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