Justices to review early release

According to major news service reports, the Supreme Court on April 24, 2000 agreed to decide whether federal prison officials can refuse to consider early release for some nonviolent felons who complete a drug-abuse program.

The court said it will hear a South Dakota inmate's argument that the Bureau of Prisons unlawfully refused to consider him for early release because his drug crime involved possession of a firearm.

Christopher A. Lopez was convicted in February 1997 of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute it. He was sentenced to 72 months in prison, including a two-level enhancement of his sentence because he possessed a firearm in connection with the offense.

Under a 1994 federal law, the Bureau of Prisons allows nonviolent inmates to have their sentences reduced by up to one year for successfully completing a prison drug-abuse program. A 1997 Bureau rule says inmates whose offense was a felony involving use or possession of a firearm or explosive would not be eligible for such early release.

Lopez got on a waiting list for a drug-abuse program, but was told in December 1998 that he would not qualify for early release because his crime involved possession of a firearm.

He sued, and a federal judge ruled that the Bureau could not categorically deny early release to a group of nonviolent inmates without individually considering their cases.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed last August and upheld the Bureau's action. The Appeals Court said federal law gives prison officials broad discretion to determine what is an appropriate candidate for early release.

In the appeal granted review today, Lopez's lawyer said the law lets the Bureau deny early release in "those special situations where release may not be warranted," but does not allow the Bureau to rewrite the law.

Justice Department lawyers said the 8th Circuit court ruled correctly, but they urged the justices to take the case and resolve a split among federal appeals courts on the issue.

The case is Lopez vs. Davis, 99-7504.