Monday, August 30, 2010

Supreme Court Decision Could Cost Taxpayers $1 Billion

Federal Prison "Good Time" Calculations Criticized

This summer the U.S. Supreme Court decided Barber v. Thomas, 560 U.S. ____ (2010). A case that will cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money.

Michael Barber originally filed a writ of habeas corpus in a federal district court. Barber argued that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inaccurately calculated his good time credit toward the service of his federal sentence. The good time credit statute provided that a prisoner "may receive credit toward the service of his sentence (15-percent) or up to 54 days at the end of each year of the prisoner's term." He argued that the BOP should calculate good time credit based on the sentence imposed rather than the time an inmate has actually served in prison. The district court denied his petition. He appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BOP's 12.8-percent rule by finding that the phrase "term of imprisonment" could be interpreted in different ways within the same sentence of the statute, according to Stephen R. Sady the Public Defender who argued the case before the Court.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing for a three judge minority suggested, "[T]he Court's interpretation — an interpretation that in my submission is quite incorrect — imposes tens of thousands of years additional prison time on federal prisoners according to a mathematical formula they will be unable to understand. And if the only way to call attention to the human implications of the case is to speak in terms of economics, then it should be noted that the Court's interpretation comes at a cost to the taxpayers of untold millions of dollars.…The interpretation the Court adopts, moreover, will be devastating to the prisoners who have behaved the best and will undermine the purposes of the statute."

Sady makes the calculations, in terms of time and money, and they are astounding: up to 36,000 years of federal overincarceration, costing taxpayers up to $951 million.

Sady writes in an opinion piece in the National Law Journal that, "Congress should now amend the good-time credit statute to require the 15% rate against the sentence imposed that has received bipartisan support in previous legislation and that provides the basis for the federal guidelines' sentencing ranges."

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