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Is Colorado keeping inmates past their release dates?

The Colorado Department of Corrections may have miscalculated the sentences of thousands of state inmates, hiking prison costs by millions of dollars and keeping offenders incarcerated beyond the time they were expected to serve, according to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of four DOC clients -- one of whom was facing a possible death penalty a few years ago over a cellhouse homicide but now may be released. In a complaint filed yesterday, attorney David Lane indicates that the case "will likely become a class action" lawsuit that could affect many of the state's 20,000 prisoners.

Lane's contention is that the DOC is misapplying state law in the way it calculates the mandatory release date (MRD) of its inmates. Under state statutes, inmates can get up to fifteen days a month of "good time" by following the rules, cutting their sentences in half. They can also shave a month off their time every six months through completing training and counseling programs -- "earned time." The DOC does award such sentence modifications, the lawsuit states, but then fails to apply them when figuring out the MRD. Since the actual release date influences a host of other decisions, from what sort of programs inmates are offered to when the prisoner actually gets a chance to meet with the parole board, the failure to apply good time and earned time ends up keeping inmates behind bars past what the prisoners contend is their statutorily mandated release date.

One of the plaintiffs, Randal Ankeney, has already been released following a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling last summer that the DOC had improperly postponed his MRD by more than two years. Another of the plaintiffs, Alejandro Perez, had been one of two defendants accused of a 2004 gang-related killing at the Limon prison, a case in which Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chamber (whose term ended in 2012) had initially pursued the death penalty; but Perez ended up acquitted of that murder in 2011. His codefendant, David Bueno, had his conviction thrown out because of evidence withheld by the prosecution.

The DOC "has taken the position that not only does it have the discretion to award earned and good time, but it is within its discretion as to whether or not to apply it to any inmate's release date," the complaint notes. But the Ankeney appeals court ruling is at odds with that position -- and now it will be up to a federal judge to decide if that ruling covers thousands of other inmates, too.

Read the complaint below.

Perez Complaint