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Fifth Circuit: No Liberty Interest in Discretionary BOP Sentence Reduction

By Matt Clarke

The Fifth Circuit court of appeals upheld the denial of sentence reduction to a federal prisoner who had completed the Residential Drug Abuse treatment Program (RDATP).

Michael Richardson, a federal prisoner incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Seagoville, Texas, was told by FCI staff that he would be eligible for sentence reduction upon completion of the RDATP. He completed the residential portion of the RDATP and was considered for placement in the community-based portion. This involved a final review of his early release eligibility. FCI staff determined he was eligible, but the BOP regional administrator overruled them because weapons were located at his residence when he conspired to launder money. At that time, he lived with his wife, mother and children. Two handguns, marijuana, currency and drug ledgers were found at the residence. The handguns were later returned to their owner, Richardson’s mother.

After unsuccessfully exhausting administrative remedies, Richardson filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. The district court found that the BOP’s application of 28 C.F.R. § 550.58(a)(1)(vi)(C) to deny eligibility was an inconsistent application of the BOP’s own rules and thus violated Richardson’s federal due process rights.

The court granted Richardson the one-year reduction and ordered his immediate release from prison. The government appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that the district court had failed to address the threshold question of whether Richardson had a liberty interest in the sentence reduction protected by the Due Process Clause. The Due Process Clause itself creates a liberty interest in punishment not “qualitatively different” from punishment normally given convicted criminals. Liberty interests can also be created by statute. However, discretionary statutes do not create liberty interests. In this case, neither the Due Process Clause nor the statute that created the sentence reduction program, 18 U.S.C. § 3621, created a liberty interest in receiving the sentence reduction. Congress granted the BOP broad discretion in granting sentence reductions and Richardson received all the process he was due through the administrative remedies he pursued. Therefore, the district court erred in granting relief and the judgment of the district court was reversed with judgment rendered in favor of the government.

See: Richardson v. Joslin, 501 F.3d 415 (5th Cir., 2007).

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Related legal case

Richardson v. Joslin