Barber v. Thomas: Supreme Court Holds That Bureau of Prisons Has Been Correctly Calculating Good Time Credits on Federal Criminal Sentences

This morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Barber v. Thomas. In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that the calculation method used by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to determine the amount of “good time” earned on federal criminal sentences is lawful. The Court rejected two other methods for calculating good time, one proposed by federal prisoners and one suggested by the dissenting justices. As a result of this holding, the taxpayers will be forced to continue paying for prisoners longer than Congress may have wanted.

This case involved the interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1), which states:

[A] prisoner who is serving a term of imprisonment of more than 1 year other than a term of imprisonment for the duration of the prisoner’s life, may receive credit toward the service of the prisoner’s sentence, beyond the time served, of up to 54 days at the end of each year of the prisoner’s term of imprisonment, beginning at the end of the first year of the term, subject to determination by the Bureau of Prisons that, during that year, the prisoner has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations. … [C]redit for the last year or portion of a year of the term of imprisonment shall be prorated and credited within the last six weeks of the sentence.

Two federal prisoners argued that the BOP has been interpreting the good time provision incorrectly, resulting in prisoners serving longer sentences than intended by Congress. The Court, using an example 10-year sentence with maximum good time credits earned, evaluated three distinct methods of calculating good time: the method currently used by the BOP, the method proposed by the prisoner petitioners, and a third method supported by the dissent.

The BOP’s method, which the Court upheld, interprets “term of imprisonment” in the statute to mean “entire imposed sentence” in some places, but “time actually served” when calculating good time. The BOP sets earned time aside at the end of each 365-day period. When the time remaining in a sentence minus earned time equals less than one year, the BOP applies a 54/365 ratio to prorate that last year and determine the prisoner’s release date. In the Court’s 10-year example, the prisoner receives 470 days of good time credit under this method.

The petitioners’ method is the most simple, interpreting “term of imprisonment” as “entire imposed sentence” throughout the statute. The petitioners would have BOP add 54 days of good time credit for each year in the imposed sentence. For a sentence of 10 years, the prisoner would receive 540 days of good time credit. Both the majority and dissenting justices rejected this method as irreconcilable with the statute.

The dissent’s method interprets “term of imprisonment” consistently as “the span of time that a prisoner must account for to obtain release.” This method would count each year’s good time credit toward the next year, so some “years” of a prisoner’s term may be completed in less than 365 days. In the 10-year example, this approach gives a prisoner a maximum of 533 days of good time credit.

Although the dissent’s approach is the most consistent use of the statutory text, makes the most logical sense, and would save taxpayers “untold millions of dollars,” the majority “conclude[d] that the Bureau’s method reflects the most natural reading of the statute.”

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion and Justice Kennedy issued the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg. The opinion and dissent in Barber v. Thomas are available here.