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April 26, 2006

Commentary on the "good-time" cert. denial

As briefly noted in this post, on Monday the Supreme Court denied cert in two cases concerning the calculation of good-time credits for prisoners serving federal sentences.  A thoughtful reader sent me these follow-up thoughts to ensure the issue, and Justice Stevens' interesting comments on the issue, gets appropriate attention:

Justice Stevens issued this unusual statement "respecting the denial of the petitions for certiorari" in Moreland v. Bureau of Prisons, 05-8262 and O'Donald v. Johns, 95-8504. These cases raised the question whether the Bureau of Prisons has been misinterpreting 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b), the federal good time statute by reading the statutory allotment of 54 days' credit for each year of the "term of imprisonment" to mean 54 days for each year actually served, rather than for each year of the sentence imposed.  Justice Stevens indicated his own view that the district court in Moreland, later overturned by the Fifth Circuit, had demonstrated that the text and history of the statute strongly suggested that it had not been intended to alter the long-standing approach of basing sentencing credits on the "sentence imposed" as the petitioners contended.

Justice Stevens' statement is interesting in more respects than its brevity might suggest. First, it is the second example in the same day, along with the Court's summary reversal of a pure Guidelines issue in Salinas, of the Court's interest in a non-death penalty sentencing issue.  Second, although the issue involves a difference of only about seven days a year incarceration for eligible prisoners, Justice Stevens noted its "great importance" and its "significant impact on the public fisc," given the number of prisoners (about 170,000) eligible for the credit. Third, however, the statement reconfirms that absent a classic circuit split (or a confession of error by the SG as in Salinas), even an issue of clear, nationwide significance is a hard sell on certiorari.

Given the absence of a circuit split, however, Justice Stevens’ statement is perhaps most interesting for its suggestion that the question "merit[s] further study," either by "judges" or by "other Government officials" or by Congress, as well as by its pointed reminder that the cert. denials were not rulings on the merits and "certainly" did not express any opinion of the "wisdom" of the Government's position.  These observations seem a pointed indication that, in the Justice's view at least, the question is not finally resolved and may well be subject to reconsideration in judicial, administrative or Congressional forums.

April 26, 2006 at 07:20 AM | Permalink


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