Criminal Law

What Are Sentencing "Credits?"

For a criminal defendant, the worry and stress begins when he's charged with a committing a crime. The stress and fear grows during the trial, until finally the case is over. If the jury believed your defense, you were acquitted and sent home. If not, you went to the sentencing phase and the judge handed down your punishment. Like many criminal defendants, the judge may send you to jail, maybe for a few weeks or months, maybe for several years. Either way, it's hard to find the silver lining. Where's a bright side of jail?

As dim as things may seem, you may be entitled to sentencing credits, which work to reduce the amount of time you have to spend in jail. Generally, you may get credits for:

  • Time served
  • Behaving in jail

Generally, these credits are available for defendants who were convicted for committing a federal crime. The criminal laws of many states also allow for sentencing credits. You need to look carefully at the laws that apply to your case to see if you're entitled to any credits, and you should talk to your attorney if you have questions.

Credit for Time Served or "In Custody"

Under a federal law, you're entitled to a credit for any time you spent in "official detention" before you started serving the sentence, so long as you were being held for the same crime for which you were convicted. This is true, too, if you were convicted in federal court but you're held in a state jail. For example, if you were convicted of arson in federal court and you spent two weeks in a county or local jail while waiting to be sentenced, you should get two weeks' credit against your federal sentence.

Also, you may be entitled to a credit if you can't be released on bail from state custody because there's a federal detainer against you. Detainer means that the after you've served your state sentence, the state has to hold you for the federal government so that it can make you serve a federal sentence. The credit applies to your federal sentence, and it's equal to the amount of time you would have been released on bail by the state if it wasn't for the detainer.

However, you don't get a credit for time you spent on pretrial or presentence release on conditions. This is where you're not held in jail while you're awaiting trial or sentencing, but rather you're allowed to go free on the condition that you follow certain rules and show up on the date scheduled for the trial or sentencing. Examples of such conditions include getting or keeping a job, staying away from the victim of your crime or any witnesses, and periodic meetings with a probation officer. You're not entitled to a credit here because, quite simply, you're not in "custody" of the state or federal government.

Good Behavior

In the federal law, as well as the laws of many states, a defendant may earn credits against his sentence for "good behavior." This credit also goes by names like "good time" or "good conduct." Good behavior is when a prisoner shows "exemplary compliance" with the rules of the jail. In other words, he stays out of trouble and does what he's supposed to do. Also, under the federal law, the fact that you've earned, or you're making good progress toward earning, a high school diploma or an equivalent degree may help you get the credit.

The federal credit applies only if your prison sentence is for more than one year. Each year you may earn up to 54 days of credit. The "year" is measured from the date you entered prison. So, if you're first day in prison was June 1, 2009, your first year ends on June 1, 2010. Any good time credits you've earned during that year will be applied on or after June 1, 2010.

Some states make additional credits available for prisoners who participate fully in any programs they're assigned to by the jail officials that are designed to help a prisoner, upon his release from jail, re-enter society and find gainful employment. These programs may include career and technical education and training, work activities and employment in and outside the jail, counseling, and alcohol and substance abuse treatment. There's usually limit on this type of credit, too. For example, you may be allowed to earn five credits for each 30 days served, and one credit may equal one day of incarceration.

It's possible to lose these credits, too. If, during the course of the year, you've earned credits, and in that same year you misbehave - get into fight, refuse to work, etc. - the prison officials may wipe the credits from your record. The same is true if you've already been given some credit. In the example above, if your sentence is reduced by five days on June 1, 2010, and you get into a fight on June 15th, the prison officials may add those five days back your sentence.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How can I find out how many good time credits I've earned?
  • What kinds of credits are available in our state? How long does the department of corrections have to figure out and apply my credits?
  • A guard is threatening to have my good time credits erased unless I agree to help him gather information about another inmate's criminal activities inside the prison. What should I do?

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