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Nonviolent federal prisoners don’t automatically qualify for shorter sentences if they get drug treatment behind bars, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. The Court ruled 6-3 that the federal Bureau of Prisons has discretion to reduce sentences or not, based in part on how the prisoner behaved before conviction. “The bureau need not blind itself to preconviction conduct that the agency reasonably views as jeopardizing life and limb,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in announcing the majority decision. In an unusual lineup, Ginsburg was joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Stephen J. Breyer. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissent on behalf of himself, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Anthony M. Kennedy. Christopher Lopez was convicted on drug charges in 1997 and sentenced to six years in prison. Under a federal law, his sentence included extra prison time because he was carrying a gun. Another federal law allows nonviolent federal prisoners such as drug offenders to qualify for a year off their sentences if they get drug treatment, and Lopez signed up. But prison officials in South Dakota later told him he wouldn’t get any time off, because of the gun conviction. Lopez sued, arguing that prison officials should consider each case individually and that a gun conviction should not disqualify him. Lopez won in federal court, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in 1999. The Supreme Court majority upheld the appeals court. “The bureau reasonably concluded that an inmate’s prior involvement with firearms, in connection with the commission of a felony, suggests his readiness to resort to life-endangering violence and therefore appropriately determines the early-release decision,” the majority opinion concluded. The majority also said that weighing eligibility case by case could lead to “favoritism, disunity and inconsistency.” The dissenting justices argued that in drafting the drug treatment law, Congress intended anyone convicted of nonviolent crimes to be eligible. Stevens noted that the drug treatment issue caused a major political divide among Republicans and Democrats negotiating the omnibus 1994 crime bill. The decision to make only nonviolent offenders eligible for the one-year sentence reduction was a compromise intended to neutralize GOP criticism that Democrats were too lenient on violent criminals, Stevens said. The Bureau of Prisons did not have leeway to then effectively recategorize nonviolent prisoners as violent ones, the minority wrote. “In so doing, the bureau ignores Congress’ express determination that when evaluating eligibility for a sentence reduction, the salient determination is the line between violent and nonviolent offenses,” Stevens wrote. “By moving this line, the (bureau) exceeded its authority and sought to exercise its discretion on an issue with regard to which it has none,” Stevens wrote. Stevens rejected the majority’s worry about unequal treatment by prison officials by noting that wardens already decide case by case whether a prisoner has successfully completed treatment and is thus eligible for time off. In an odd echo of the Court’s ruling last month that the Florida presidential ballot recounts needed better standards, Stevens wrote that there would be nothing to stop the Bureau of Prisons from drafting “a uniform set of criteria” for case-by-case evaluation after treatment. “To suggest that decisionmaking must be individualized is not to imply that it must also be standardless,” Stevens wrote. By a 5-4 vote, the Court stopped ballot recounts in Florida largely because different counties or officials used different standards to evaluate the ballots. The decision effectively handed the election to George W. Bush. Some of the dissenters said then that the Court could have allowed the recounts to continue after making sure a uniform standard applied. The sentence-reduction case is Lopez v. Davis, No. 99-7504 Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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