Criminal Law - Postsentence Administration - Seventh Circuit Upholds Federal Bureau of Prisons Interpretation of Federal Good Conduct Time Statute

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CRIMINAL LAW--POSTSENTENCE ADMINISTRATION--SEVENTH CIRCUIT UPHOLDS FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS INTERPRETATION OF FEDERAL GOOD CONDUCT TIME STATUTE.--White v. Scibana, 390 F.3d 997 (7th Cir. 2004).

If a coffee shop offers a deal in which you can "drink ten cups and get one free," can you apply this deal to the tenth cup, or is it only the eleventh cup that comes free? Few would fret over this question. But substitute "years in prison" for "cups of coffee," and you have the makings of a legal controversy. Such is the problem of interpreting the federal good conduct time (GCT) statute, 18 U.S.C. [section] 3624(b), which governs how sentence reductions apply to prisoners exhibiting good behavior. Recently, in White v. Scibana, (1) the Seventh Circuit held that [section] 3624(b) is sufficiently ambiguous to warrant applying Chevron (2) deference to a reasonable Bureau of Prisons (BOP) interpretation that allows eligible prisoners to earn sentence reductions of no more than 13%, rather than 15% as is more commonly understood. (3) Although the court was correct to uphold the BOP interpretation, the court was wrong to find the statute ambiguous and proceed to Chevron step two. When properly read as a process or a sequence of instructions, the statute is both unambiguous and consistent with the BOP interpretation; the issue is therefore resolved at Chevron step one.

First enacted as part of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (4) (SRA), the relevant text of 18 U.S.C. [section] 3624(b) reads as follows:

[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.... [I]f the Bureau determines

that, during that year, the prisoner has not satisfactorily complied

with such institutional regulations, the prisoner shall receive

no such credit toward service of the prisoner's sentence or shall

receive such lesser credit as the Bureau determines to be

appropriate.... Credit that has not been earned may not later be

granted.... [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. (5)

The BOP later promulgated 28 C.F.R. [section] 523.20, an implementing regulation that states:

[A]n inmate earns 54 days credit toward service of sentence (good conduct

time credit) for each year served. This amount is prorated when the time

served by the inmate for the sentence during the year is less than a full

year. The amount to be awarded is also subject to disciplinary

disallowance.... (6)

In August 1996, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois convicted Yancey White of three counts of distributing cocaine base and sentenced him to ten years in prison. (7) The BOP calculated that if White earned the maximum GCT he would be released in March 2005. (8) While in federal prison in Wisconsin, White filed a habeas corpus petition with the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin (9), claiming that he should be released in December 2004 instead. (10)

White argued that 28 C.F.R. [section] 523.20, authorizing up to 54 days of GCT "for each year served," contradicted the statutory language of 18 U.S.C. [section] 3624(b), in which the phrase "term of imprisonment" (11) meant "sentence imposed. …