Jones v. Keller

Last Friday, after years of litigation and months of deliberation, the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued its decision in Jones v. Keller. The case resolves the question of what sentence reduction credits, if any, apply to a group of life-sentenced inmates who were sentenced at a time when G.S. 14-2 read that a “sentence of life imprisonment shall be considered as a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 80 years in the State’s prison.” The court concluded that no credits should apply toward the inmates’ outright release date, and that their continued incarceration is thus lawful. (The court also decided a companion case, Brown v. North Carolina Department of Correction, in which it reached the same conclusion for the same reasons.)

I’ll say up front what the dissenting opinion in Jones says on the next-to-last page of a 37-page decision: “This is a hard case.”

You may recall that in State v. Bowden, 193 N.C. App. 597 (2008), discussed here, the court of appeals held that the plain language of G.S. 14-2, as it existed between April 8, 1974 and June 30, 1978, meant that a life sentence must be considered an 80-year sentence for all purposes, including calculation of the inmate’s outright release date. In light of that ruling, Alford Jones—convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a 1975 murder—petitioned in November 2009 for a writ of habeas corpus. His argument: if, under Bowden, his life sentence was actually a determinate 80-year sentence, when you take into account the good time, gain time, and meritorious time he earned under DOC regulations applicable to other determinate sentences, he had completed his sentence and was entitled to unconditional release. The trial court agreed.

A divided supreme court reversed. Citing separation of powers principles, the court said it reviews DOC’s administration of credits against sentences only to ensure that the rules the agency adopts are, first, within the agency’s statutory authority and second, that they are constitutional. The court concluded in Jones that DOC’s policies passed both tests.

As to the statutory authority, the court concluded that G.S. 148-13 gave DOC all the authority it needed to establish rules on rewards for good inmate behavior—including the authority to establish rules that might award credit to certain inmates for some purposes (e.g., parole eligibility) but not for others (e.g., determination of outright release date).

As to the rules’ constitutionality, the court rejected Jones’s due process, equal protection, and ex post facto arguments. I won’t dissect the court’s analysis, but it turned largely on a weighing of Jones’s liberty interest in the credits against the State’s “compelling interest in keeping inmates incarcerated until they can be released with safety to themselves and to the public.” Suffice it to say that the court concluded Jones’s liberty interest was “de minimus.” Justice Newby concurred in the result, elaborating on the equal protection analysis by noting that “life” sentences from this era, even if treated as 80-year sentences under Bowden, are still a separate class of sentences that could justifiably be treated differently by DOC.

Justice Timmons-Goodson, joined by Justice Hudson, dissented. She argued that DOC’s misapprehension of Jones’s sentence between the time it was entered and the time Bowden was decided does not entitle the Department to retroactively establish special rules for administering it. To the contrary, Jones’s life sentence was a determinate sentence the day it was entered, and it should thus be treated under the rules applicable to other determinate sentences. There are, the dissent points out, several exceptions to the credit rules for other categories of inmates—but none for inmates like Jones. And it is improper, Justice Timmons-Goodson concluded, to create one after-the-fact under the guise of “interpretation” of the existing regulations. Under the regulations that exist, therefore, Jones has earned his credit and is entitled to release.

Much more could be said about this case, and perhaps I’ll write more after I’ve had a chance to digest it more fully. In the meantime I welcome your thoughts.

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