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Can't Deny Good-Time Credit Based on Laws Passed After Sentencing

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 29, 2015 1:19 PM

Louisiana cannot revoke sentence-shortening "good-time credits" earned by prisoners based on legal changes that occurred after a prisoner's initial sentencing, the Fifth Circuit ruled this week.

The court granted habeas relief for Richard Price, who was sentenced for armed robbery in Louisiana in 1985, and lost all of his good-time credit after he violated parole conditions. That was an unconstitutional ex post facto application of the law, the Fifth held.

Goodbye Good-Time Credit?

Price was sentenced in Louisiana in 1985. Eighteen years later, he was paroled. Eventually, he violated a condition of his release and had his parole revoked. When his new release date was calculated, Louisiana officials revoked all of Price's "good-time credit" earned prior to his parole. Good-time credit allows prisoners to earn time off their sentences as a result of good behavior.

Price objected, arguing that he was entitled to retain most of his good-time credit, and thus he was entitled to an earlier release date. When Price was convicted, an offender who violated a condition of parole could forfeit no more than 180 days of "good-time credit" earned prior to parole. In 1997, Louisiana changed its law so that an inmate who violated a parole condition would forfeit all good-time credit. It was the later version, wiping out all good-time credit, that the state applied to Price.

When Price sought review in state court, both the state district court and appellate court simply ignored his claims that the sentence was an unconstitutional ex post facto application of the law. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied his petition for review in a one-word order. (The word was simply "Denied.")

An Affirmance is an Affirmance

The Constitution prohibits retrospective application of laws which disadvantage offenders. For Price's relief to be granted, his loss of good-time credit must have resulted from retrospective application of the law. The state had argued that the change in good-time credit was not retrospective, as the law was enacted long before Price's parole violation.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed, applying the Supreme Court's opinion in Scafati v. Greenfield, a summary affirmation of a district court's decision finding that good-time forfeiture laws enacted after sentencing were retrospective. That establishes a clear rule, applicable to Price, regarding the loss of good-time credit, the court held. Even that fact that Price agreed that he would forfeit credit if he violated his parole conditions did not change the fact that the law was still applied ex post facto.

That's good news, and not just for Price. Though the ruling is an "as applied" decision, its logic should extend to all Louisiana inmates sentenced before 1997, who could now see much less loss of good-time credit should they violate future parole conditions.

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