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The practice of granting early release to criminals in prison has come under intense scrutiny in Rhode Island, following the news that Michael Woodmansee is scheduled to be set free this summer, after serving 28 years of a 40-year sentence for murdering his South Kingstown neighbor, 5-year-old Jason Foreman.
Many Rhode Islanders were outraged that Woodmansee’s sentence had been shaved by 12 years and he would soon be released to the community, at age 53.
Among those speaking out against Woodmansee’s release is Richard Ferruccio, a correctional officer who was president of the correctional officers’ union for nine years and was a lobbyist on their behalf at the State House.
On the "Helen Glover" show on radio station WHJJ (920-AM), Ferruccio complained that Woodmansee would have served his entire 40-year sentence if "good time" provisions had not allowed him to cut his sentence short. There would be less crime, he said, if criminals were kept in prison longer.
He went on to say that Rhode Island’s "good time" provisions were already liberal during much of Woodmansee’s time in prison. Then, in 2008, the General Assembly, with support from prison administrators, made the provisions even more favorable to inmates.
"What we had in Rhode Island prior to then  was one of the most generous "good time" bills in the country," Ferruccio said. "What we have now is the most generous, in my opinion, ‘good time’ bill in the entire United States."
We wondered if Rhode Island really has the nation’s most liberal "good time" policies.
In general, "good time" refers to days prisoners can cut from their sentences for good behavior. At least 38 states offer prisoners the opportunity to earn "good time." Many states, including Rhode Island, also grant additional time off for prison work and successful completion of educational programs.
Supporters of such programs say they are incentives to inmates to stay out of trouble while behind bars and can be part of the rehabilitative process. Educational and vocational programs, they say, prepare prisoners for life on the outside. Opponents say they allow dangerous criminals to go free far too early.
The "good time" policy in place during most of Woodmansee’s 28 years in prison granted inmates up to 10 days off per month for good behavior, plus two more days for working in prison.
In 2008, the General Assembly approved up to five more days per month for those taking classes or participating in programs. That brought the maximum time an inmate can earn to 17 days per month.
The Assembly made the change in part to save money. And it worked. In the first year of the new law, the average population of the Adult Correctional Institutions dropped by 87 prisoners, to 3,773, according to a Department of Corrections report.
To support his argument that Rhode Island’s current "good time" law is the nation’s most generous, Ferruccio supplied a March 18, 2008 survey of state policies, compiled by the Connecticut Department of Corrections. (Rhode Island’s law was changed in May 2008.)
The Connecticut survey shows that at the time of the survey, Rhode Island fell roughly in the middle of states. Some states, such as Georgia, Hawaii and Idaho, had no "good time" provisions. But 13 other states had more generous policies. Arkansas and New Mexico, for example, granted up to 30 days off a month. California would waive half a sentence for non-violent offenders. Iowa reduced sentences by 1.2 days for each day served. North Carolina granted one day off for each discipline-free day served.
A more recent survey, completed in January by the National Conference of State Legislatures but not yet published, found the awarding of "good time" appears to be a growing trend. The survey showed that 14 states appear to be more generous than Rhode Island.
Alabama, for instance, grants up to 75 days off per month for good behavior -- the result is those prisoners who qualify serve about a third of their sentences. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico grant up to 30 days per month.
Rhode Island does have the most generous policy in New England, according to the 2011 survey. Massachusetts allows inmates to earn up to 7.5 days per month for educational and work efforts, Maine offers up to 4 days per month. New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut have no "good time."
When we apprised Ferruccio of our findings, he said he was more certain about New England.
Ferruccio argues that Rhode Island corrections officials misrepresent the total amount of time prisoners can cut from their sentences because they earn additional time off for completing education and rehabilitation programs. But that’s the case in many states. For instance, prisoners who complete their high school equivalency get an extra 90 days in Arkansas and Kentucky, six months in Indiana.
Alison Lawrence, author of the January survey, says most states allow prisoners to accumulate earned time on top of good time. And there is an overall increase in granting more earned time because states believe it leads to less crime.
(Because of the Woodmansee case, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin says he intends to file legislation to reduce "good time," especially for those who commit heinous crimes.)
In conclusion, if Ferruccio had limited himself to a New England comparison, he would have had a point. But he didn’t. He said Rhode Island has the most liberal "good time" law in the nation. That wasn’t true in 2008. And it’s not true now.
We rule his statement False.
Radio interview, Richard Ferruccio on "The Helen Glover Show," WHJJ_(920AM), March 10, 2011
Connecticut Department of Corrections website, Sentence Reduction Programs, accessed March 18, 2011
Interview with Alison Lawrence, National Council of State Legislatures, March 16, 2011
State of Rhode Island, "An Act Making Revised Appropriations for the Support of the State for Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 2008." (See Article 7.) Accessed March 18, 2011
The Providence Journal, "'Good behavior' incentive works -- Fewer behind bars: R.I. reports first decline in prisoners in four years," Dec. 12, 2009.
Interview, Richard Ferruccio, correctional officer, March 11, 2011
Interview, Patricia Cony-Fague, executive counsel, Rhode Island Department of Corrections, March 14, 2011
Interview, Michael Lawlor, Connecticut undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, March 17, 2011
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