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Court Rejects "Good Time" Case That Would Have Freed 1000s of Prisoners

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The Colorado Supreme Court sided with the Colorado Department of Corrections this week in squelching a long-simmering, convoluted debate over whether the state isn't properly calculating credits that take time off inmates' sentences.

It's a decision that reinforces the status quo, saves one of the state's largest bureaucracies from untold embarrassment, and averts the possibility of having to release thousands of people who, attorneys claimed, were serving sentences well past their true discharge date. 

It's also a highly opaque decision, one that appears to have involved some arcane calculations of its own to reach the desired result.

As we reported last year in two posts (one from January, another in October), the lawsuit challenging the state's sentencing computations was first brought by Randal Ankeney, who began serving an eight-year sentence on a child-abuse conviction in 2008. After being turned down on his first bid for parole, Ankeney filed suit, claiming the DOC wasn't counting the "earned time" and "good time" credits he'd received in determining his mandatory release date (MRD).

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 more time off their sentence by completing training and counseling programs — "earned time." But those reductions are typically used to figure out the date an inmate comes before the parole board for the first time, not his actual date of release. 

Ankeney reckoned that he should have been out of prison and serving his three-year mandatory parole term starting in late 2011. The district court judge disagreed, but the Colorado Court of Appeals took a different position. While the DOC was using the credits to determine an inmate's parole eligibility date, the appeals court thought the credits should also be applied to the calculation of the MRD, too. The DOC obliged by putting Ankeney on parole in 2013. But then the case took another swerve; after Ankeney was allowed to amend his complaint, due to now being on parole, the district court judge did an about-face and decided Ankeney really should have been placed on parole in 2010 — and ordered him released from all supervision in late 2013. 

Confused yet? But wait. There's more. Even as the implications of the Ankeney decision began to spread, with civil-rights attorney David Lane seeking class-action status for thousands of other prisoners similarly situated, the DOC appealed Ankeney's release. And that action led to this week's Supreme Court decision, which essentially puts the kibosh on the whole argument and concludes that Ankeney still hasn't completed his parole obligation. 

The Supremes, in their wisdom, found that the district court was wrong. The appeals court was wrong. Ankeney was wrong. Everyone badly misinterpreted the way the Supreme Court has interpreted the relevant Colorado statutes — except, of course, the Supreme Court.  

"I think the Court of  Appeals had it exactly right and the Supreme Court has it exactly wrong," says Ankeney attorney Lane. "But they are wearing the black robes and I am not.... A legislative fix is in order because I don't think the Supreme Court realizes what the legislature wanted when they passed the good time statute.":

To be sure, at least some of the murk encasing the state's sentencing scheme should be blamed on lawmakers, not the courts. Colorado went through a maelstrom of different sentencing laws in the 1970s and 1980s, each with different approaches to parole eligibility and time-off deals, before settling on the current "mandatory parole" structure in 1993. But after twenty years of that system, you'd think it would be a clearer process than it seems to be. The state has none of the truth-in-sentencing practices that have been adopted elsewhere; most people don't realize that a twenty-year sentence in this state can mean as little as ten years or even less (or fifteen for a violent offender) before parole. And they certainly don't know how those sentences can be lengthened, too, by erratic application of the "good time" credits and parole violations and more.

The latest decision not only leaves Ankeney's fate in question but that of another lawsuit filed last week, seeking to expand the Ankeney class-action to include other prisoners who may have served more time inside or on parole than the statutes require. Blake Embry, the attorney who filed that case, says, "There's a human element to this. I've had an opportunity to meet a lot of people who are involved in this case. I've seen the harm that has been done to them by not receiving the 'good time' that they are owed."

Embry says he will have to review the Supreme Court decision before determining his next move. "I'm disappointed in the decision," he says, "but my firm plans to move forward with the case we filed as best we can."

Read the Supreme Court's Ankeney decision below. 

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