On June 7, my federal public defender office had the disturbing experience of losing Barber v. Thomas in 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.
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