Federal prisoners should get good time credit for “good behavior” in prison. Under a federal law, prisoners with good behavior deserve “up to 54 days” of good time credit per year. You might think this means that you could only serve 311 days for every year in prison (365 – 54 = 311) if you have good behavior. That thought makes sense. But, at least according to the Bureau of Prisons, you’re wrong.
What is good time credit?
Under 18 U.S.C. § 3624, federal prisoners can earn good time credit for “good behavior” in prison. The law defines the term “good behavior” as “exemplary compliance with” BOP rules. With good time credit, a person can reduce their time in BOP custody. People may also refer to good time credit as “good conduct time.” Both phrases mean the same thing.
18 U.S.C. § 3624(b) explains how the BOP calculates good time credit. It states that “a prisoner who is serving a term of imprisonment of more than 1 year other than a term of imprisonment for the duration of the prisoner’s life, may receive credit toward the service of the prisoner’s sentence, beyond the time served, of up to 54 days at the end of each year of the prisoner’s term of imprisonment….”
It also states that this good time credit is available so long as the BOP determines that “the prisoner has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.” So, as long as your prison sentence last longs than one year (but less than life) and you have good behavior, the BOP should give you 54 days of good time credit every year.
Does the BOP actually give prisoners 54 days of good time credit per year?
Sort of. The BOP does give eligible prisoners 54 days of good time credit every year. But, if you think the calculation is as simple as 365 – 54 = 311, you’re mistaken. Under the BOP’s interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b), prisoners can actually only earn 47 days of good time credit for each year of their sentence.
This is because the BOP awards good time credit based on the actual time you spend in prison, not the time period in your judgment of sentence. Since the 1980s, the BOP has had a policy of calculating good time credit based on the days “actually served” by a prisoner, not the sentence imposed by the judge.
A simple example shows how this works. Imagine a judge sentences you to seven years in prison. Now imagine that you’ve served one year (a full 365 days) in BOP custody already. It wouldn’t be surprising for you to think you can get up to 378 days of good time credit (7 x 54 = 378). But, under the BOP policy, you’ve only earned 54 days of good time credit so far. After the second year, you’ll have earned 108 days of good time credit. The pattern keeps going.
By the end of your sixth year in prison, you’ll have served 2,190 days (6 x 365 = 2,190). You’ll have also earned 324 days of good time credit (6 x 54 = 324). Adding those together (2,514), you still have not finished your sentence of seven years (2,555 days). Had they done the math the way you might think (7 x 54 = 378), you would have been eligible for release already (2,555 – 378 = 2,177). But that’s not the way the BOP does the math.
Federal prisoners are supposed to get good time credit for “good behavior” in prison. Federal law states that prisoners with good behavior are entitled to “up to 54 days” of good time credit per year. But the BOP applies that rule in a way that only gives prisoners up to 47 days per year. So far, no one has stopped the BOP from doing so.