Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Good Times

Students of both 3150 and 3810 may remember the Comprehensive Crime Control and Sentencing Reform Acts of 1984. These were the legislative monsters, pushed by the Reagan administration and approved by a cowed Democratic Congress, which restricted, among other things, the amount of time federal prisoners must serve of their sentences (the so-called "85% Rule").

Back in March SCOTUS heard a challenge from federal inmates regarding how, precisely, the 85% rule is calculated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). For model inmates, they can receive a total of 54 days off their sentence in a calendar year for good behavior (the good time credit). These "credits" are then kept in the aggregate for each consecutive year (so at the end of two years of perfect behavior, you would have earned 68 days off the end of your sentence, 162 days at the end of three years, etc.).

The issue is whether the BOP calculates the pro-rated credits off the time served or the actual sentence handed down by the judge. Under the rubric approved by a 6-3 majority yesterday, model inmates can actually be penalized and end up serving several weeks or even months longer than the methodology suggested in the dissent.

To summarize from the various convoluted explanations:

  • according the majority (Breyer, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito and Sotomayor) and the way the BOP calculates today, based on time served, a perfect inmate serving a 10 year sentence (3,650 days) would serve 3,180 days with 470 days of good time credit.
  • under the dissent's calculation based on the sentence (Kennedy, Stevens, and Ginsburg), a perfect inmate sentenced to the same 10 year, 3,650 days sentence would serve 3,117 days with 533 days of good time credit earned.
  • the difference of 63 days or two months is quite a bit, but given the lengthier sentences meted out on the federal level, we are talking several months or even years of additional time in 25-35 year sentences and beyond.
When this case was first argued in March, I was skeptical the court would have garnered even one vote in favor of the inmates. After all, this is a 25 year old scheme the BOP has been operating under, and why should anyone care whether inmates have an "incentive" to behave and get out early?

The fact that it garnered three justices to vote against, particularly Kennedy's thought-provoking dissent, is worth noting (emphasis mine).
The Court has interpreted a federal sentencing statute in a manner that disadvantages almost 200,000 federal prisoners. It adopts this reading despite the existence of an alternative interpretation that is more consistent with the statute’s text. Absent a clear congressional directive, the statute ought not to be read as the Court reads it. For the Court’s interpretation — an interpretation that in my submission is quite incorrect — imposes tens of thousands of years of additional prison time on federal prisoners according to a mathematical formula they will be unable to understand.

And if the only way to call attention to the human implications of this case is to speak in terms of economics, then it should be noted that the Court’s interpretation comes at a cost to the taxpayers of untold millions of dollars. The interpretation the Court adopts, moreover, will be devastating to the prisoners who have behaved the best and will undermine the purpose of the statute. These considerations, and those stated below, require this respectful dissent.
Not surprisingly, the only people discussing this are those who follow sentencing and punishment decisions and cases. I haven't seen this case mentioned anywhere in the MSM, but then why would it be mentioned? Keeping "predators" in prison longer? Spending "whatever it takes" to keep 'em locked up and playing drop the soap as long as possible?

Damn straight. This is an election year, after all.

The case is Barber v. Thomas (2010)

1 comment:

v said...

You would figure that this would be at least a slightly larger issue for the public considering the whole recession thing and the economic issue it brings up. Not only for the millions it would take to initialize the changes, but also the additional cost of keeping these inmates in prison for an extended period of time.

Not only that, but this seems to be pretty cruel for the inmates and a step back in terms of the supposed "reform" inmates receive.