A Federal Bureau of Prisons policy excluding murderers, rapists and others with violent crimes on their record from an early-release program is invalid because authorities have failed to explain why those inmates are ineligible, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the prison administration to reconsider the application for sentence reduction from Jerry Crickon, a federal prisoner in a Long Beach halfway house due for release in six months.
Crickon, convicted of drug offenses in 2000, was offered a drug rehabilitation program two years ago but was told that, because of a 1970 voluntary manslaughter conviction, he wasn't eligible for the one-year sentence reduction other inmates could get.
Lawyers for prisoners and the federal government were still analyzing Tuesday's decision and couldn't immediately say how broadly it might affect early-release program eligibility for the federal incarceration network holding about 207,000 prisoners nationwide.
In addition to the federal inmates, California alone imprisons 170,000 people in facilities crammed with twice their designed capacity. Earlier this month a three-judge federal court panel ordered the state to cut its inmate population about 25% over the next two years.
"We think with prison overcrowding being what it is, the Bureau of Prisons should be allowing the maximum statutory ability for people to obtain small sentence reductions for successful completion of an excellent rehabilitative program," said Stephen R. Sady, the chief deputy federal public defender who represented Crickon in the case.
Sandra Hijar, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons' Western region, said legal authorities were still reviewing the ruling.
Bureau of Prison rules for sentence-reduction incentive programs categorically exclude inmates with prior convictions for homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
The 9th Circuit panel didn't say the bureau couldn't make such exclusions, just that the bureau hadn't adequately explained its rationale for doing so. Under the federal Administrative Procedures Act, government agencies are required to justify their rules and procedures, then offer the public an opportunity to comment or make proposals.
The 9th Circuit panel included two appointees of President Clinton, Circuit Judges Richard A. Paez and Johnnie B. Rawlinson, and visiting U.S. District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins, named to the federal bench in Utah by President Carter.