Barber v. Thomas

PETITIONER: Michael Gary Barber, et al.
RESPONDENT: J. E. Thomas, Warden
LOCATION: Federal Correctional Institution

DOCKET NO.: 09-5201
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 560 US 474 (2010)
GRANTED: Nov 30, 2009
ARGUED: Mar 30, 2010
DECIDED: Jun 07, 2010

Jeffrey B. Wall - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Stephen R. Sady - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Michael Barber petitioned for habeas corpus relief in a federal district court. Mr. Barber argued that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inaccurately calculated his good time credit toward the service of his federal sentence. The good time credit statute provides that a prisoner "may receive credit toward the service of his sentence… of up to 54 days at the end of each year of the prisoner's term." Mr. Barber argued that the BOP should calculate good time credit based on the sentence imposed rather than the time an inmate has actually served in prison. The district court denied his petition.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, citing its decision in Tablada v. Daniels as controlling. There, the court held upheld the BOP's method for calculating good time credit. The court had reasoned that the good time credit statute was ambiguous and the BOP's interpretation of the statute was reasonable.


1) Does the "term of imprisonment" in Section 212(a)(2) of the Sentencing reform act unambiguously require the computation of good time credit on the basis of the sentence imposed, rather than on time actually served?

2) If "term of imprisonment" is ambiguous, does the rule of lenity and the deference appropriate to the United States Sentencing Commission require that good time credit be awarded based on the sentence imposed, rather than on time actually served?

Media for Barber v. Thomas

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 30, 2010 in Barber v. Thomas

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 07, 2010 in Barber v. Thomas

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has our opinion this morning in case 09-5201, Barber versus Thomas.

Stephen G. Breyer:

A Federal Sentencing Law provides “that a prisoner serving a term of imprisonment of more than one year, may receive credit towards the service of the prisoner's sentence of up to 54 days at the end of each year of the prisoner's term of imprisonment” based on a determination by the Federal Bureau of Prisons that the prisoner has exhibited good behavior “during that year.”

This credit operates as a reward for good behavior while in prison and for that reason it is generally referred to as a good time credit.

Each day of good time credit that a prisoner earns up to 54 a year is one less day that he will spend in prison.

At issue in this case is whether the method used by the Bureau of Prisons to calculate good time credit is lawful?

Under the Bureau of Prisons method, a prisoner would have his good time calculated at the end of each year he served except for the last year, which he does not serve in full.

For that last year the Bureau of Prisons would calculate a proportionate amount of good time.

The petitioners here are two prisoners who challenge the Bureau's method as unlawful.

They propose a simpler method.

A prisoner sentenced up to 10 years, to 10 years for example would receive up to 10 times 54 or 540 days good time credit.

The Bureau's more complex method which depends upon the time the prisoner actually serves in prison would give that prisoner up to 470 days good time credit not 540 days.

Ultimately we conclude that the Bureau's method is right.

Their method follows the statute and we think the prisoner's method does not.

Thus we must reject petitioner's simpler method.

We explained all this in some detail in our opinion which the mathematically inclined may wish to read.[Laughter]

Justice Kennedy has filed the dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg have joined.