WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court justices flexed their math skills during arguments over the Bureau of Prisons’ method for calculating sentence reductions for good behavior. Justice Sonia Sotomayor flubbed a simple subtraction at one point, but quickly corrected herself. “That was pretty bad,” she added, to laughter.
The case of Barber v. Thomas hinges on the meaning of a single phrase – “term of imprisonment” – in the law governing good-time credits.
Well-behaved prisoners serving sentences longer than one year are eligible to have up to 54 days a year knocked off their “term of imprisonment.”
The bureau claims “term of imprisonment” means time actually served, so it awards the 54 days at the end of each year following a review.
An inmate can’t receive time off for good behavior until he actually serves the time, Jeffrey Wall told the justices.
But Stephen Sady, attorney for inmates Michael Gary Barber and Tahir Jihad-Black, argued that the bureau’s interpretation of the phrase short-changed his client’s good-time credits.
“For Mr. Barber, that’s over six months’ additional time behind bars in a prison,” Sady said.
He said the phrase means the entire sentence, entitling his clients to 54 days for every year of their sentences, whether served or not, for a prospective 15 percent cut in their prison time.
“I get lost in the math of this sometimes,” Justice Stephen Breyer admitted.
He initially found Sady’s method “complicated” and asked why the bureau can’t just subtract the good-time credits from the back end of the prison sentence.
“That’s following the statute, it seems to me, absolutely literally. And it also seems to me to make sense, because you don’t want to give [the inmate] credit for time he never serves,” he said.
“Justice Breyer, I think you stole my thunder,” Wall said as he prepared to argue the government’s side.
But by that point, Breyer may have changed his mind, after learning that the Senate made a “technical amendment” for the first year in low-sentence cases. Prisons commonly release well-behaved inmates before their first year is up, even when the prisoners haven’t been in prison for 365 days.
Breyer coined the phrase “phantom time” for the time sentenced but never served.
“How can you possibly justify phantom time being included in the first year but not in the other years?” he asked Wall.
Wall replied that a prisoner sentenced to one year and one day – the minimum to receive good-time credit – “will never actually get 54 days” off his time. Instead, he gets released up to 47 days early. His 319 days served, plus the 47 days of good-time credit, add up to his 366-day sentence, Wall explained.
Sady said “nobody can understand” the bureau’s math and insisted that the government’s method caused inmates to serve 2.2 percent more time in custody. The difference between interpretations amounts to about seven days per year, and can add up to months of prison time for inmates with hefty sentences, he said.
Justice John Paul Stevens raised the issue of prison costs, saying it costs $25,000 to $26,000 to house a prisoner, at a total cost of “something like $100 million in taxpayers’ money.”
He suggested that any ambiguities in the law might be decided in the inmates’ favor, given the costs of the overcrowded prison system.
The case came before the Supreme Court largely based on the record in another case, Tablada v. Daniels, which is still seeking high court review. In Tablada, the 9th Circuit upheld the denial of habeas relief to a federal inmate who filed a similar lawsuit challenging the bureau’s method of calculating good-time credit.