Iowa Supreme Court restores sentence reduction in a ruling affecting 150 inmates

By: Rox Laird on October 19th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court in its first decision of the term handed down Oct. 13 agreed with a convicted sex offender that his prison sentence was wrongly extended by more than three years by the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC).

The IDOC’s recent policy reversal on how to calculate inmates’ early release credits was contrary to an earlier Iowa Supreme Court ruling, the justices said unanimously in State v. Iowa District Court for Jones County.

At the heart of the appeal is a state statute that grants prison inmates early release based on good behavior. An inmate is eligible to earn credits equal to 1.2 days of sentence reduction for every day of good behavior. These so-called “earned-time credits” encourage prisoners to follow prison rules and participate in treatment programs.

Marshall Miller was serving a prison sentence for third-degree sex abuse that required completion of a sex-offender treatment program. By the time Miller entered the treatment program, he had earned enough credits to be released in March 2016. Before completing treatment, however, he was removed from the program due to prison rules infractions.

Under the Department’s previous interpretation of state law, that meant Miller would be ineligible for any additional credits toward early release while keeping those he had already earned. But the Department changed its interpretation in 2016 to say that sex offenders who refuse or are removed from sex-offender treatment forfeit not just future earned-time credits but credits already earned as well.

The difference meant Miller’s projected release date was extended by three years and nine months, to December 2019. Since the Department applied the change retroactively, it similarly affected approximately 150 Iowa prison inmates.

Miller argued in his appeal that the Department had it right in its original interpretation of the statute, and the Supreme Court agreed. In fact, that is the position the court took when it addressed this issue in its 2009 ruling in Holm v. State.

In that ruling, the court adopted the State’s position at the time that Iowa Code section 903A.2 should be read to say that an inmate will no longer accrue any earned time after refusing to attend the sex offender treatment program but will not lose any previously accrued earned time. The court has adhered to that position in subsequent decisions on the issue, and the legislature has acquiesced to these precedents by declining to change the language of the statute.

Justice Thomas Waterman, writing for the court in the Jones County decision, said “the legislature has amended the statute five times without altering our interpretation in Holm. We thus conclude that the legislature acquiesced in Holm’s interpretation” of the statute. “The IDOC cannot overrule Holm by administrative fiat; rather, a legislative amendment to section 903A.2 is required before the IDOC may begin forfeiting previously accrued earned time based on a sex offender’s refusal or removal from SOTP.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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