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Ninth Circuit Strikes Down BOP Regulations Limiting Halfway House Placement

By Brandon Sample

On September 4, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit joined the Second, Third, Eighth and Tenth Circuits in concluding that the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) regulations categorically limiting eligibility for halfway house placement to the last ten percent of a prisoner's sentence is inconsistent with the plain meaning of 18 U.S.C § 3621(b).

Jose Rodriguez, a federal prisoner, requested that he be considered for halfway house placement some six years before his scheduled release date in November 2013. Unsurprisingly, the BOP denied Rodriguez's request. According to the BOP, Rodriguez was ineligible for halfway house placement until 11-13 months before his release date because 28 C.F.R. §§ 570.20 and 570.21 limit halfway house placement to the last ten percent of a prisoner's sentence, not to exceed six months.

Dissatisfied, Rodriguez filed a habeas corpus petition. Rodriguez argued that the BOP had the authority to transfer him to a halfway house at any time, citing 18 U.S.C. § 3621(b), which authorizes the BOP to "at any time . . direct the transfer of a prisoner from one penal or correctional facility to another." The BOP argued in response that its general authority to transfer prisoners at any time was cabined by 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c), which requires the BOP, to the extent practicable, to ensure that prisoners spend a reasonable part of the final portion of their sentences, not to exceed six months, in a halfway house. Alternatively, BOP contended that its decision to categorically limit halfway house placement to the last ten percent of a prisoner's sentence was a valid exercise of its discretionary authority under § 3621(b).

The magistrate judge sided with Rodriguez and recommended that the district court grant the petition. The district court did, ordering the BOP to consider Rodriguez for halfway house placement without regard to the challenged regulations. The BOB appealed.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The BOP's authority to transfer a prisoner to a halfway house "at any time" is not affected by 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c), the court held. "[A]lthough . . . [section 3624(c)] imposes an affirmative duty on the BOP to consider placing an inmate in community confinement or a similar pre-release alternative toward the end of the inmate's prison term, it does not interfere with the BOP'S discretionary authority to consider such placement prior to the last ten percent of the prison term."

Further, BOP could not, as a matter of categorical discretion, limit halfway house placement to the last ten percent of a prisoner's sentence. Section 3621(b) requires individualized assessment of certain factors, such as the history and characteristics of the prisoner. Factors such as this, the court held, cannot be considered on an individual basis through a categorical regulation.

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Rodriguez v. Smith, 541 F.3d 1180 (9th Cir. 2008). Note that this ruling conflicts with the 1st Circuit’s ruling in Muniz v. Sabol, 517 F.3d 29 (1st Cir. 2008), cert. denied. [PLN, Aug. 2009, p.45].

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Related legal case

Rodriguez v. Smith