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Good Time Credits, Algebra, and Lenity

In the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Congress decided to cap the sentence reduction credits for behaving in prison at about 15%. The formula they chose was 54 days per year, which actually works out to 14.8%. But is that 14.8% off the total sentence or credit for 14.8% of the time actually served? That was the question before the Supreme Court in today's decision of Barber v. Thomas. The difference works out to about 10 weeks for a 10-year sentence.

(1) Total sentence: 3652 days * 0.148 = 540 max days credit
     3112 actual days served + 540 max credits = 3652 total sentence

(2) Let time actually served with max credits = x: then x + 0.148x = 3652
     3652 / 1.148 = x; x = 3181 days.
     max credits for 3181 days = 3181 * 0.148 = 471
     3181 min days served + 471 max credits = 3652 days total sentence

Neither problem is particularly difficult mathematically. If, as Justice Kennedy says in dissent, "the Court's interpretation  ... imposes ... additional prison time on federal prisoners according to a mathematical formula they will be unable to understand," perhaps they should earn their credits attending remedial eighth-grade math class.

To me, it is self-evident that when a statute provides that good time credits must be earned by behaving well in prison, the credit must be calculated on the basis of time actually served, not time sentenced.  The contrary view seems to be based on a policy preference for shorter sentences. To get there, you have to say that the inmate earns good-time credit for days he didn't have to serve due to having earned credit for earlier days, a sort of compound-interest approach to good time. I also find it a bit hyperbolic to say the result is "devastating" for the best-behaved inmates when it means an extra 10 weeks for someone sentenced to 10 years. Sure, every day counts, but we are talking about less than 2% of the total here.

I expect that the most useful portion of the opinion for state and local prosecutors will be Justice Breyer's response to the "rule of lenity" argument:

Even so, the rule of lenity only applies if, after considering text, structure, history, and purpose, there remains a "grievous ambiguity or uncertainty in the statute," Muscarello v. United States, 524 U. S. 125, 139 (1998) (internal quotation marks omitted), such that the Court must simply "'guess as to what Congress intended.'" Bifulco [v. United States, 447 U.S. 381,] 387 [1980].

That seems to relegate the rule of lenity to the kind of last-resort tool that will rarely be needed to interpret a statute.

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