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Ninth Circuit Rejects Challenge to BOP’s Implementation of Second Chance Act

On December 6, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against federal prisoners who argued that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was not properly implementing the Second Chance Act (SCA), a law designed to boost re-entry programs and services for released prisoners. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.8].

As part of the SCA, Congress expanded the BOP’s authority to make halfway house placements in order to better assist offenders transitioning back into society. Before the SCA, the BOP could place a prisoner in a halfway house for up to six months. The SCA doubled that placement time to 12 months.

Despite the increased use of halfway houses permitted – indeed, encouraged – by the SCA, the BOP largely refused to place prisoners in halfway houses for longer than six months. That refusal stemmed from an unexplained, unsupported assertion found in a 2008 BOP memorandum that stated prisoners’ re-entry needs “can usually be accommodated by a placement of six months or less.”

Tim Ray Sacora and several other BOP prisoners petitioned for habeas relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241, arguing that the BOP was not properly implementing the SCA. They claimed that the BOP’s decision to discourage halfway house placements beyond six months except in unusual circumstances – and then only with the Regional Director’s approval – was in violation of the SCA.

The prisoners also argued that the BOP had violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by implementing the SCA through memorandum instead of using notice-and-comment rulemaking.

The district court denied relief, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed on appeal. “It is not unreasonable for the [BOP] to conserve the resources of [halfway houses] by applying an extra check on the longest placements ...,” the appellate court wrote.

Further, it was appropriate for the BOP to require “unusual circumstances” for placements longer than six months, the Ninth Circuit concluded, given the SCA’s express purpose “to assist offenders reentering the community from incarceration ... by providing sufficient transitional services for as short of a period as practicable.” 42 U.S.C. § 17501(a)(5).

The Court of Appeals also rejected the prisoners’ APA arguments, holding that the BOP’s rules implementing the SCA were not arbitrary or capricious and that notice-and-comment rulemaking was not required because the informal rules adopted via memorandum were not binding.

Thus, the denial of habeas relief was affirmed. The prisoners, represented by the Office of the Federal Public Defender, filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 16, 2011. See: Sacora v. Thomas, 628 F.3d 1059 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Sacora v. Thomas