(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the Bureau of Prisons’ method for calculating sentence reductions for good behavior, calling it the “most natural reading of the statute.”
The 6-3 majority rejected a challenge brought by inmates Michael Gary Barber and Tahir Jihad-Black, who claimed the bureau’s interpretation shortchanged them by giving them good-time credits only for time served, not for their entire sentences.
Under the law governing good-time credits, inmates are eligible for up to 54 days a year knocked off their “term of imprisonment.”
The parties disputed whether this term meant time actually served, as the bureau interpreted it, or the entire sentence, as the inmates’ lawyer, Stephen Sady, had argued in March.
Sady said the bureau’s reading caused federal inmates to serve 2.2 percent more time in custody.
“The statute’s language and its purpose, taken together, convince us that the BOP’s calculation method is lawful,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the dissent, argued that any ambiguities in the law should be decided in the inmates’ favor.
“Absent a clear congressional directive, the statute ought not to be read as the Court reads it,” Kennedy wrote. “For the Court’s interpretation — an interpretation that in my submission is quite incorrect — imposes tens of thousands of years of additional prison time on federal prisoners according to a mathematical formula they will be unable to understand. And if the only way to call attention to the human implications of this case is to speak in terms of economics, then it should be noted that the Court’s interpretation comes at a cost to the taxpayers of untold millions of dollars.”
He added that the majority’s interpretation “will be devastating to the prisoners who have behaved the best and will undermine the purpose of the statute.”
Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined him in dissent.