Supreme Court restricts sentence-reducing benefit

Federal inmates who used guns cannot cut term with drug program

January 11, 2001|By SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal inmates who used guns in their crimes cannot receive a credit that cuts a year off prisoners' sentences if they undergo treatment for drug abuse.

In a program enacted six years ago, Congress barred only violent criminals from that sentence-reducing benefit. But yesterday, the court decided by a vote of 6-3 that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons was free to exclude another group - inmates who committed nonviolent crimes while carrying or using guns.

The bureau adopted that position after concluding that inmates who had a gun in connection with the crime that sent them to prison had shown a tendency to endanger lives and that public safety required them to be kept in prison until they served out their sentences.

The court majority rejected a South Dakota inmate's argument that Congress intended to create an incentive for all inmates to receive substance abuse treatment, so long as the crimes they committed were classified as nonviolent.

"When an eligible prisoner successfully completes drug treatment, the bureau has the authority, but not the duty, to reduce his term of imprisonment," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"The bureau need not blind itself to conduct that the agency reasonably views as jeopardizing life and limb - the very conduct leading to conviction," she wrote.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the three dissenters, said that Congress had drawn the line for early release "between violent and non-violent offenses. ... By moving this line, the bureau exceeded its authority."

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