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U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Federal Good Time Challenge

On June 7, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) method for calculating federal good time credits.

The dispute over the BOP’s implementation of the federal good time statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b), began about six years ago. Federal prisoners across the country, including this writer, filed habeas petitions arguing that the BOP was misapplying the good time statute by awarding credits retrospectively instead of prospectively.

Under the BOP’s methodology, prisoners can earn 54 days of good time – the maximum allowable by statute – only after physically serving each year in custody (except for the last year of incarceration, when the amount of good time is prorated). A prisoner with a ten-year sentence, for example, can earn a maximum of 470 days of good time on his or her total sentence using the BOP’s method.

Conversely, prisoners could earn 540 days of good time on a ten-year sentence if the credits were awarded based on the sentence imposed, which is the method advocated by BOP prisoners and their supporters (10 years x 54 days of good time each year = 540 days total good time).

Every federal Court of Appeals that heard challenges to the BOP’s calculation of good time sided with the BOP. Some courts said the statute unambiguously called for the method used by federal prison officials, while others deferred to the BOP’s interpretation of the statute after finding its language ambiguous.

Just when it seemed the BOP good time challenge was dead, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear one of the cases. Hope sprung anew; after all, why would the high court agree to take a case when there was no circuit split unless they intended to do something differently? At least that is what many prisoners thought.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Association of Federal Defenders, Federal Public and Community Defenders in the U.S., Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Prison Fellowship Ministries, Dean Erwin Chemerinksy of the UC Irvine School of Law, the ACLU and others joined amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs.

Hopes were dashed, however, with the announcement of the Supreme Court’s 6-3 opinion in favor of the BOP. Justice Breyer, who authored the decision, said the BOP’s method for calculating good time reflected the most natural reading of the statute. The Court also rejected application of the so-called “rule of lenity,” which requires that ambiguous penal statutes be construed in a defendant’s favor, finding there was no “grievous ambiguity” in the law.

Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg and Stevens, dissenting, said the Court had interpreted the statute “in a manner that disadvantages almost 200,000 federal prisoners.” “We should not embrace this harsh result,” Kennedy wrote, “where Congress itself has not done so in clear terms.” Unfortunately the Supreme Court did embrace the majority’s ruling, effectively ending challenges to the BOP’s method of calculating good time. See: Barber v. Thomas, 130 S.Ct. 2499 (2010).

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Related legal case

Barber v. Thomas