Pubdate: Wed, 10 Jan 2001
Source: Associated Press
Copyright: 2001 Associated Press
Author: Anne Gearan, Associated Press Writer


WASHINGTON (AP) - Nonviolent federal prisoners don't automatically qualify 
for shorter sentences if they get drug treatment behind bars, a divided 
Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The court ruled 6-3 that the federal Bureau of Prisons has discretion to 
reduce sentences or not, based in part on how the prisoner behaved before 

"The bureau need not blind itself to preconviction conduct that the agency 
reasonably views as jeopardizing life and limb," Justice Ruth Bader 
Ginsburg said in announcing the majority decision.

In an unusual lineup, Ginsburg was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, 
Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Stephen J. Breyer.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissent on behalf of himself, Chief 
Justice William Rehnquist  and Anthony M. Kennedy.

Christopher Lopez was convicted on drug charges in 1997 and sentenced to 
six years in prison. Under a federal law, his sentence included extra 
prison time because he was carrying a gun.

Another federal law allows nonviolent federal prisoners such as drug 
offenders to qualify for a year off their sentences if they get drug 
treatment, and Lopez signed up. But prison officials in South Dakota later 
told him he wouldn't get any time off, because of the gun conviction.

Lopez sued, arguing that prison officials should consider each case 
individually and that a gun conviction should not disqualify him. Lopez won 
in federal court, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (news - web 
sites) reversed that decision in 1999.

The Supreme Court majority upheld the appeals court.

"The bureau reasonably concluded that an inmate's prior involvement with 
firearms, in connection with the commission of a felony, suggests his 
readiness to resort to life-endangering violence and therefore 
appropriately determines the early-release decision," the majority opinion 

The majority also said that weighing eligibility case by case could lead to 
"favoritism, disunity and inconsistency."

The dissenting justices argued that in drafting the drug treatment law, 
Congress intended anyone convicted of nonviolent crimes to be eligible.

Stevens noted that the drug treatment issue caused a major political divide 
among Republicans and Democrats negotiating the omnibus 1994 crime bill. 
The decision to make only nonviolent offenders eligible for the one-year 
sentence reduction was a compromise intended to neutralize GOP criticism 
that Democrats were too lenient on violent criminals, Stevens said.

The Bureau of Prisons did not have leeway to then effectively re-categorize 
nonviolent prisoners as violent ones, the minority wrote.

"In so doing, the bureau ignores Congress' express determination that when 
evaluating eligibility for a sentence reduction, the salient determination 
is the line between violent and nonviolent offenses," Stevens wrote.

"By moving this line, the (bureau) exceeded its authority and sought to 
exercise its discretion on an issue with regard to which it has none," 
Stevens wrote.

Stevens rejected the majority's worry about unequal treatment by prison 
officials by noting that wardens already decide case by case whether a 
prisoner has successfully completed treatment and is thus eligible for time 

In an odd echo of the court's ruling last month that the Florida 
presidential ballot recounts needed better standards, Stevens wrote that 
there would be nothing to stop the Bureau of Prisons from drafting "a 
uniform set of criteria" for case-by-case evaluation after treatment.

"To suggest that decisionmaking must be individualized is not to imply that 
it must also be standardless," Stevens wrote.

By a 5-4 vote, the court stopped ballot recounts in Florida largely because 
different counties or officials used different standards to evaluate the 
ballots. The decision effectively handed the election to George W. Bush 
(news - web sites). Some of the dissenters said then that the court could 
have allowed the recounts to continue after making sure a uniform standard 

The sentence-reduction case is Lopez v. Davis, 99-7504
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