Jail and Prison Credit: Can I Shorten My Sentence?

Depending on a number of factors, there are two different mechanisms through which a convicted defendant can reduce the amount of sentence he or she actually serves: sentence reduction credits and jail credits. However, it is important to understand the limitations of these programs and the differences between the two.

Sentence reduction credits are days of credit that the Department of Corrections or other correctional authority can award to an inmate as an incentive for good behavior or participation in prison work and educational programs. In contrast, jail credits are days that a judge calculates and awards for time that the defendant has already spent in confinement for the charge for which they were sentenced.

Sentence Reduction Credits

Sentence reduction credits, as mentioned above, are awarded by the correctional authority housing a sentenced inmate. They can take several forms, including “Good Time” for time without infraction or good behavior; “Gain Time,” also known as “Earned Time,” for participation in full-time work and prison programs; and “Meritorious Time,” or “Merit Time,” for above-and-beyond acts such as working overtime or in inclement weather, and special educational achievements.

North Carolina’s Structured Sentencing Act took effect in 1994 in an attempt to provide judges with fair and clear-cut guidelines to follow when sentencing inmates. With the exception of impaired driving offenses, it applies to all misdemeanors and felonies in North Carolina that took place on or after October 1, 1994. Impaired driving offenses are governed by their own set of sentencing guidelines, and those convicted of driving while impaired are eligible for Good Time sentence reduction credit only.

The Structured Sentencing Act provides a recommended sentencing range for each class of misdemeanor and felony, taking into account the extent and severity of the person’s previous criminal record. The more extensive and/or severe a criminal history a person has, the harsher their sentencing range will be. A judge can also decide in his or her discretion to either exceed the “normal” sentencing range because of aggravating factors present in the crime being sentenced, or reduce the range because of mitigating factors. The current version of the Act’s guidelines applies to individuals convicted of committing a crime after December 1, 2009.

For those convicted of Structured Sentencing crimes, “Earned Time” for participation in a prison work program is the primary sentence reduction credit available.

Earned Time

For an individual convicted of a felony, earned time cannot reduce their sentence below the minimum term that is set out in the sentencing guidelines. The number of days’ worth of credit a person can earn under this scheme depends upon the number of hours per day they work and the level of skill involved in their work duties. The maximum number of earned time days a person convicted of a felony can accumulate is six (6) per month. Assuming the person begins work right away when serving their sentence, and assuming he or she can obtain one of the higher-skilled or high-level work assignments, it is theoretically possible for them to work a maximum sentence range down to the minimum. However, immediate work and high-skilled job posts are not always available for a number of reasons, and earned time is also subject to forfeiture if the person receives disciplinary infractions. Disabled and medically unfit prisoners who are unable to work or engage in other prison programs receive four (4) days per month of earned time.

For an individual convicted of a misdemeanor, earned time credit is capped at four (4) days per month. In addition to completion of any jail-assigned duties, misdemeanants may also complete a GED program or other education, training or rehabilitation program to earn these credits.

Sentence Reduction Credits and Life Sentences

Sentence reduction credits used to be available to individuals serving “life sentences”—prior to July 1, 1978, North Carolina's sentencing statutes provided that a sentence of “life imprisonment” was considered 80 years. In addition, there was also an existing rule at the time that life sentences became eligible for parole after 20 years. This meant that defendants who were sentenced prior to 1978 generally became eligible for parole after serving one-fourth of their maximum prison term. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that individuals incarcerated for 80-year life terms were not eligible for earning time off these sentences.

Jail Credit

In contrast to earned time, jail credits are ordered by the judge. If the judge decides to grant jail credit for a charge, the amount of credit will be equal to the time the defendant served while waiting on trial, appeal, retrial, or pending a probation, parole or post-release supervision revocation hearing. It is within the judge’s discretion whether to give a convicted individual credit for time served or not.

If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, it is crucial to retain the assistance of an experienced local defense attorney familiar with the local legal landscape and defending people against similar charges. Arnold & Smith, PLLC is an aggressive criminal defense and civil litigation firm with offices in Charlotte, Monroe and Mooresville North Carolina. Our dedicated criminal defense attorneys are in the local courts nearly every day fighting for our clients’ rights against a variety of criminal charges, including Driving While Impaired (DWI/DUI) and drug charges. Please contact us today for a free initial consultation about your case.