June 07, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Barber v. Thomas

On June 7, the Supreme Court decided Barber v. Thomas, No. 09-5201, holding that the method used by the federal Bureau of Prisons to calculate the credit for "good time" against prisoners' sentences, which bases the credit on time actually served rather than the sentence originally imposed, is lawful.

18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1) provides that a federal prisoner "may receive credit" toward the service of his or her sentence of "up to 54 days at the end of each year" if the Bureau of Prisons determines that, during that year, the prisoner has behaved in exemplary fashion. Credit for "the last year or portion of a year of the term of imprisonment [is] prorated." The Bureau calculates this credit by comparing a prisoner's accrued credit at the end of each year against the remaining term of the sentence. When the remaining time, less the accrued credit, is less than a year, a partial credit is prorated and applied to determine the time that the prisoner still must serve. Several prisoners filed suit challenging this procedure, claiming that their credit should be based on the length of the sentence originally imposed, rather than the length of time they actually served—a difference that, in the case of longer sentences, would reduce their time served by several additional months compared to the Bureau's approach. The district court rejected their claim, holding that the Bureau's approach complied with the statute, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the Bureau's method reflects the most natural reading of the statute. The Court noted that a former version of the statute governing the calculation of good time granted a deduction at the outset based on the length of the sentence, which could be forfeited if the prisoner violated prison rules. By contrast, the current statute awards a credit at the end of each year if the prisoner has behaved properly, showing Congress's intention to change from a prospective entitlement to a retrospective award. The prisoners' approach would loosen the statute's intended connection between good behavior and the good-time award. The Court rejected the suggestion that the statute contained a "grievous ambiguity or uncertainty" that, according to the "rule of lenity," must be construed in favor of a criminal defendant.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg joined.

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