High Court to rule on early release

The US Supreme Court will rule in the next few months on whether the federal Bureau of Prisons can automatically deny early releases to people convicted of crimes where a firearm was present but not used. Christopher A. Lopez (Lopez vs. Davis, 99-7504) was convicted in 1997 of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. His six-year federal prison sentence included an enhancement because a firearm was present when police arrested him in at home in Des Moines, Iowa.

The problem begins with the 1994 law that allows the BOP to reduce the sentences of nonviolent inmates up to a year if they complete a prison drug treatment program. Lopez was denied early release because of a Bureau rule, not the prevailing law that excluded him from treatment programs because of his conviction in which a gun was part of the evidence.

Lopez' lawyer argued that it is wrong to establish an entire category of inmates who are barred from early release. In a bit of tricky mental footwork the lawyers differed over the word 'may' in the language of the statute. The word 'may' in this instance simply means the BOP has much discretion to decide who gets treatment and early release. Lopez argued that the Bureau has overstepped its bounds.

According to several wire service stories, Justice David Souter wondered why, if Congress wanted to exclude inmates who possessed a gun, it didn't do so itself when the law was written.

A federal judge originally ruled the bureau could not deny early release to a group of nonviolent inmates without individually considering their cases. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that last August and upheld the bureau's action.

The appeals court said the federal law gives prison officials a broad discretion to determine who is an appropriate candidate for early release.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]