Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘rule of lenity

Should the Rule of Lenity Apply When Construing Statutes Governing Prisons?

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The Supreme Court heard oral argument earlier this week in Barber v. Thomas (09-5201), a case about how to interpret the good-time credit statute that applies to federal prisoners. As noted in this CNN report, the justices enjoyed some chuckles at oral argument, though of course, for the 195,000 prisoners who may spend more or less time behind bars as a result of the court’s ruling, the issues are presumably no laughing matter. Rather than go through all the issues in the case, which have been covered elsewhere, I thought I’d highlight just one interesting point that came up at oral argument: Should the court apply the Rule of Lenity in construing this statute?

The Rule of Lenity is a common-law canon of construction that requires courts, when interpreting an ambiguous criminal statute, to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant, rather than the state. The question is whether this rule only applies to formally criminal statutes that define crimes and their possible punishments, or whether it should also apply in interpreting statutes and regulations that govern how prisons calculate time served, which effectively define the actual punishment imposed in any particular case. Here’s Justice Kennedy, questioning Jeffrey Wall of the Solicitor General’s office, who’s arguing on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons (where possible I’ve added links to the cases and briefs mentioned): Read the rest of this entry »

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