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Thursday, September 9, 2004

Appeals court rules Justice Department sentencing policy violates 1984 law

Associated Press Writer

BOSTON- A federal appeals court on Thursday, ruling in a case brought by a once prominent attorney, struck down a two-year-old Justice Department policy that prohibits federal inmates from being placed in halfway houses until the final months of their sentences.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Morris M. Goldings, a former high-profile Boston attorney imprisoned in 2002, who argued that his eligibility for placement in a community corrections center, such as a halfway house, should not be limited to the final three-and-a-half months of his three-year prison term.

The court overturned U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young's dismissal of Goldings' lawsuit against the government, and ordered the lower court to reconsider the complaint.

At issue is a practice the Bureau of Prisons adopted in December 2002 in response to an opinion by the Department of Justice's Legal Counsel. The Justice Department declared unlawful the prison bureau's previous practice of allowing some federal prisoners to serve all or part of their sentences in halfway houses, which enable convicts to live outside prison and work while facing restrictions such as curfews.

At sentencing, judges sometimes recommend that nonviolent offenders facing short sentences be placed in such programs to ease their return to society.

The appeals court found the tightened eligibility restrictions the Justice Department ordered conflicted with Congress' intent in passing the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.

"Although the change in policy has generated a flood of lawsuits in the federal district courts, no court of appeals has yet spoken on the validity of the BOP's new policy," the three-judge panel wrote in its decision. "We do so here and conclude that the new policy is contrary to the plain meaning of" the 20-year-old law.

The panel said the law "authorizes the BOP to transfer Goldings to a (community corrections center) at any time during his prison term."

It was unclear whether the U.S. Attorney's office might appeal the ruling. A phone message seeking comment was not immediately returned.

The Justice Department had argued that the law had been interpreted incorrectly, and did not grant the Bureau of Prisons discretion to place prisoners in halfway houses before the final six months of their actual time served or the final 10 percent, whichever was shorter.

Goldings pleaded guilty in 2002 to 25 counts of mail and wire fraud and money laundering after the U.S. Justice Department accused him of stealing $17 million between January 1993 and December 2000 to pay off personal debt. He was sentenced later that year to three years in prison.

Goldings once represented Bruins star Cam Neely and boxer Marvin Hagler, as well as other celebrity clients. One victim, Barbara Peabody, the widow of former Bay State Gov. Endicott Peabody, was bilked out of $900,000.

While serving his sentence at the Federal Medical Center Devens in Ayer, Goldings sued the government before he could become eligible for community corrections.

Joining the case as friends of the court were the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Criminal Justice Act Board and the Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation.

"There are a lot of people that could be impacted by this," said Charles Rankin, who supported the lawsuit in arguing the case on behalf of the groups. "It could mean that from now on, in at least in the 1st Circuit, judges will again have the freedom to recommend that someone serves 12 to 14 months in community corrections."

As long ago as 1965, the Bureau of Prisons had generally accepted judges' recommendations to place prisoners in community corrections before the final few months of their sentences, attorneys for the groups said.

Rankin said, "I'm thrilled because the decision of the Court of Appeals reverses a mean-spirited, illegal policy by Attorney General (John) Ashcroft and it means that potentially thousands of prisoners will be able to have an orderly transition to the community by means of spending the last six months of their sentences in a halfway house."

Peter Goldberger, another attorney who entered the case on behalf of prisoners' rights groups, said the Justice Department policy "reflects the cruelly mistaken philosophy that there is no problem facing this country that cannot be solved with increased imprisonment."
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