Two Recent Cases on Sentence Administration

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Two recent cases—one from the North Carolina Court of Appeals and one from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit—resolve questions of sentence administration that I’ve written about in the past.

The first case is McDonald v. N.C. Department of Correction, __ N.C. App. __ (March 20, 2012), and it deals with the issue of how the prison system measures each month of an inmate’s sentence. I wrote about the issue in this prior post. To sum up, the Division of Adult Correction (DAC) treats individual months of a person’s sentence as 30 days for sentence administration purposes. For sentences of 12 months or more, however, DAC takes each 12-month grouping and converts it into a 365-day year, with any remainder months treated as 30 days. Through that approach, a 10-month sentence is converted to 300 days (10 x 30); a 13-month sentence is converted to 395 days (365 + 30); and a 26-month sentence is converted to 790 days (365 + 365 +60).

A group of inmates challenged that methodology, contending that it was impermissible under G.S. 12-3(12). That law says that “the words ‘imprisonment for one month,’ wherever used in any of the statutes, shall be construed to mean ‘imprisonment for thirty days.’” The inmates argued that the statute applies to sentences under Structured Sentencing and requires DAC to treat every single month as 30 days, no matter how long the total sentence. If that were the case, every 12-month increment would be 360 days long instead of 365, allowing for a slightly earlier release date for anyone with a sentence over one year.

The trial court rejected that argument and upheld DAC’s approach. In an opinion that was initially issued as unpublished, the court of appeals affirmed. The court held that G.S. 12-3(12) simply does not apply in this context because Structured Sentencing never actually uses the words “imprisonment for one month.” As a result, G.S. 12-3(3), not 12-3(12), controls. That provision says that “[t]he word ‘month’ shall be construed to mean a calendar month, unless otherwise expressed,” and thus DAC’s aggregation of calendar months into calendar years is appropriate. Of course, that conclusion calls into question DAC’s practice of treating individual and remainder months as 30-day periods, but that issue wasn’t technically before the court.

The second case is Waddell v. Department of Correction, __ F.3d __ (4th Cir., May 25, 2012). It is the latest chapter in the long-running saga of a group of life-sentenced inmates who committed their crimes during a brief period in the 1970s when a life sentence was defined by statute as 80 years. I wrote about the issue here when our court of appeals first held in State v. Bowden, 193 N.C. App. 597 (2008), that the 80-year provision in G.S. 14-2 applied for all sentence-calculation purposes, not just determination of parole eligibility. And I wrote about it here when the supreme court upheld the correction department’s decision not to award any sentence reduction credits toward those inmates’ outright release date in Jones v. Keller, 364 N.C. 249 (2010).

Larry Waddell is one of the inmates subject to the 80-year rule who was denied sentenced reduction credits pursuant to Jones. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1975 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1976. Had he received the sentence reduction credits awarded to other determinate sentences of that era he would have finished his time in 2010; without the credit, he is due to be released in 2054. He sought habeas corpus relief in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing that the denial of the sentence credits extended his confinement in violation of the due process and ex post facto clauses of the Constitution.

The federal district court denied relief and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. First, the appellate court agreed with the district court that Waddell’s claim was probably time-barred under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). But even assuming for the sake of argument that it was not, the panel went on to conclude that the state court decision in Jones (on which the denial of credits to Mr. Waddell was ultimately based) was not “contrary to” or “an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States”—the requisite standard of review under AEDPA. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Regarding due process, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the Jones court that DOC’s practice of applying credits for some purposes (i.e., parole eligibility and determining custody grades) but not for accelerating outright release dates did not give rise to a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause. The court likewise found no merit in Waddell’s ex post facto claim because it could not flag a particular enactment, statutory or regulatory, that increased his punishment after the fact. To the contrary, the court said that DOC has never applied sentence reduction credits from life sentences—and Waddell’s sentence is still technically a life sentence, even if it was subject to a “short-lived enactment that deemed a ‘life sentence’ to be eighty years.” Slip op. at 20. Having rejected both of the petitioner’s arguments, the panel unanimously upheld the federal district court’s denial of habeas relief.

Though these two cases deal with different aspects of sentence administration (sentence calculation in McDonald versus sentence reduction in Waddell), there’s a common theme that runs through them both: judicial deference to an executive agency. The state court of appeals decision opened with a disclaimer that, while courts determine guilt or innocence, “[t]he execution of the sentence belongs to a different department of the government.” The Fourth Circuit noted in Waddell that the Supreme Court of North Carolina had framed the credit award issue in Jones as “strictly administrative and not judicial.” Slip op. at 7 (quoting Jones, 698 S.E.2d at 53–54). With that deference in place, inmates in DAC will continue to serve 30-day months, 365-day years, and, in a small number of cases, 80-year lives.

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