Calling On Congress to Increase Federal Good Time for Inmates
Via Sentencing Law and Policy, Steve Sady, chief deputy federal public defender for the District of Oregon who argued the case of Barber v. Thomas in the Supreme Court, writes a commentary, Too Much Time in Prison, in tomorrow's National Law Journal.
In a nutshell: Congress mandated federal prisoners serve 85% of their time, but according to the odd formula the Bureau of Prisons uses to calculate the 85%, it turns out prisoners get only 12.8%, and the Supreme Court has upheld their formula. How? "By finding that the phrase "term of imprisonment" could be interpreted in different ways within the same sentence of the statute." [More...]
On June 7, my federal public defender office had the disturbing experience of losing Barber v. Thomasin the U.S. Supreme Court, a case that — if the outcome had been different — would have prevented up to 36,000 years of federal overincarceration, saving taxpayers up to $951 million. The issue was whether the federal statute that allowed federal prisoners to earn up to 54 days of good-time credits for each year of their sentences meant that a prisoner could reduce the sentence imposed by up to 15%. This sounds like an easy figure to calculate (54/365), but the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), based on time served, came up with a complex formula that works out to 12.8% of the prisoner's sentence, or only 47 days per year of the sentence imposed. In light of the Court's majority ruling approving the BOP's interpretation of 12.8%, 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....
Although the Supreme Court has made its decision, the result is bad public policy. It is now up to Congress and the administration to step up and correct the problem. Congress can fairly and safely lower incarceration rates for well-behaved prisoners, thereby reducing prison overcrowding and preserving public resources, by amending the federal good-time statute to ensure that prisoners can receive good-time credits of up to 15% of the sentence imposed. By doing so, Congress would reaffirm the value our society and Constitution place on human freedom, while reinforcing good behavior by federal prisoners.
On why Congress needs to act:
Three fundamental reasons favor amendment of the statute to make it crystal-clear that the BOP must replace its complex formula with the common-sense 15% rule that provides the missing seven days per year. First, by providing the full reward for good behavior, prisons become safer and more effective. Federal prisons are operating at 137% of capacity. Prison overcrowding is directly correlated to increased danger for inmates and guards alike. The resulting security priorities directly cut into prison budgets, causing the underfunding or elimination of programs that make the biggest rehabilitative difference, such as industrial training, drug treatment and boot camp.
Economics also favor change. We could save $951 million a year just on the extra 7 days the BOP insists each inmate serve each year(the difference between 54 days per year and 47 days):
Third, the 12.8% rule is wasteful and unproductive. Although the United States leads the world in per capita incarceration rates, the 2.2% difference in good-time credits rate has a huge financial effect with no impact on community safety. During a time of financial stress, the nearly $1 billion that will be spent on housing 200,000 federal prisoners (at $25,894 each per year) for the extra annual seven days could be put to far better uses, especially as the cost increases by up to about $95 million every year.
This is a very small step. What's really needed is to get rid of the 85% requirement that came in with the sentencing guidelines in 1987 and increase good time amounts across the board.
In 2009, Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) introduced H.R. 1475, The Federal Prison Work Incentive Act. It would:
Amend the federal criminal code to allow reductions in the prison term of a federal prisoner whose record of conduct shows that such prisoner has substantially observed all prison regulations and has not been subjected to punishment.
Allow the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to grant a reduction in a prisoner's term for actual employment in an industry or camp or for exceptionally meritorious service or for performing duties of outstanding importance in connection with institutional operations.
The current statute is 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b).
“a prisoner who is serving a term of imprisonment of more than 1 year other than a term of imprisonment for the duration of the prisoner's life, may receive credit toward the service of the prisoner's sentence, beyond the time served, of up to 54 days at the end of each year of the prisoner's term of imprisonment,
beginning at the end of the first year of the term, subject to determination by the Bureau of Prisons that, during that year, the prisoner has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.”
On July 24, 2010, the BOP calculated the number of federal prisoners at 211,014. It costs $25,894 a year to house one inmate.
Sady's call to Congress is a valid one. We also need H.R. 1475 to pass. Encourage your Congressperson to support both. Especially those on the House Judiciary Committee. Sign the Change.Org petition. The full text of H.R. 1475 is here.
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