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Michael M. O’Hear, Solving the Good-Time Puzzle: Why Following the Rules Should Get You Out of Prison Early, 2012 Wis. L. Rev. 195. Copyright by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System; Reprinted by permission of the Wisconsin Law Review.

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2012 Wisconsin Law Review 195


Good-time programs have long been an important part of the American penal landscape. At least twenty-nine states and the federal government currently offer prison inmates early release, sometimes by many years, in return for good behavior.

Written a generation ago, the leading scholarly article on the subject presented a strong case against good time, which has yet to be effectively addressed. Although good time is traditionally justified by reference to its usefulness in deterring inmate misconduct — credits can be denied or withdrawn as a penalty for violations of prison rules — the article questioned how it could possibly be just to impose additional incarceration based on mere violations of administrative regulations.

In response to this important challenge, the present Essay proposes a new way to conceptualize good-time credits, specifically, as a way to recognize atonement. Drawing on increasingly influential communicative theories of punishment, the Essay argues that good time can be seen as congruent with (and not, as is commonly supposed, in opposition to) the basic purposes of sentencing. The Essay then proposes reforms that would help good-time programs more fully to embody the atonement ideal.

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