December 28, 2011

Habeas Petitioner Denied Use of Sentence Reduction Credits

May 3, 2011

In Jones v. Keller,1 the North Carolina Supreme Court denied a prisoner’s release after the prisoner asserted he had completed his sentence through a combination of time served and sentence reduction credits. The court deferred to the Department of Corrections’ contention that the credits were awarded only for limited purposes.

Case Background

On September 1, 1976 Alford Jones was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.2 At the time of his conviction, North Carolina law defined “life imprisonment” as “a term of 80 years in the State’s prison.”3 While serving his sentence, Jones accumulated sentence reduction credits for good behavior and by November 2009, Jones believed he had completed his 80 year sentence through a combination of jail time and credits. Accordingly, he filed a habeas corpus petition demanding his immediate release.4

The North Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) opposed Jones’ release, arguing that the credits were not intended to apply directly to Jones’ sentence. DOC argued that the credits were only to be consIdered for the limited purpose of calculating Jones’ release date if the Governor commuted his sentence from life imprisonment to a finite term of years.5 At that point, Jones’ earned time would be subtracted from his commuted sentence.

The Wayne County Superior Court, disagreeing with DOC, granted Jones’ petition and ordered his release. DOC appealed, and the North Carolina Supreme Court accepted certiorari on the issue of whether North Carolina law and DOC’s regulations mandated Jones’ release. In the event that they dId not, Jones argued that his continued incarceration would violate: (1) the due process clause; (2) the ex post facto clause; and (3) the equal protection clause.6

Jones’ Entitlement to Immediate Release

The North Carolina Supreme Court held that Jones was not entitled to release because the details of how to apply sentence credits were firmly within DOC’s discretion. The court held that the Legislature’s grant of power to the DOC to enact “provisions . . . relating to rewards . . . for good conduct [and] allowances of time for good behavior” implied the power “to determine the purposes for which that time is allowed.”7 Deeming that DOC’s construction had been reasonable, the court deferred to it.8 The majority next consIdered whether Jones’ continued incarceration would violate the federal or North Carolina constitutions.

Due Process

Jones argued that having his credits count toward his release was a constitutionally protected liberty interest of which he was deprived without legal process. While acknowledging that prisoner entitlement programs could give rise to such a right, the majority held that Jones dId not possess a liberty interest in having his credits applied “for the purpose[] of unconditional release.”9 Furthermore, they asserted, even if Jones had a liberty interest, it was “de minimis” compared to the government’s interest in keeping prisoners incarcerated “until they can be [safely] released.”10 This interest was particularly strong because Jones was convicted of first-degree murder.11 Additionally, the parole process was deemed “adequate to preserve Jones’ constitutional rights.”12

Ex Post Facto

The court held that DOC’s interpretation of Jones’ good time credits had remained constant and, thus, dId not amount to an after-the-fact increase in punishment. Because Jones could not point to any intervening law, regulation, or policy interpretation that altered his sentence, his ex post facto claim was dismissed.13

Equal Protection

Finally, Jones argued that DOC’s refusal to apply his credits toward his sentence violated his right to equal protection. Jones contended that he received a determinate sentence (80 years) and, due to DOC’s refusal to apply his credits to his release time, was treated differently from other recipients of determinate sentences.14 The court justified this distinction by stating that since Jones had committed first-degree murder, he could be treated differently than those who committed different crimes.15

Concurring Opinion

Justice Newby’s concurring opinion went farther in rejecting the petitioner’s claims in three respects. First, Justice Newby argued that the Legislature intended to preserve a natural life sentence even though it explicitly defined life sentence as “a term of 80 years.”16 Second, he opined that no life inmate sentenced under the “80 years” statute has a liberty interest in having credits applied to his or her sentence.17 He stressed that no law, regulation, or policy imbued life inmates with this interest. Finally, Justice Newby offered a more detailed equal protection analysis. He argued that Jones, a life inmate, could only be compared with other life inmates sentenced under the “80 years” statute. Therefore, because all members of this group have been denied sentence reductions based on good behavior credits, Jones’ treatment was not discriminatory.


Justice Timmons-Goodson’s dissent criticized several points made by the majority opinion. She first discussed two North Carolina Supreme Court cases from 1978 that clearly established that a life sentence, at the time of Jones’ sentencing, constituted an 80-year period.18 DOC participated in these cases and dId not contest the issue. Its current policy appeared to have been recently crafted to prevent the imminent release of several life inmates.19

Justice Timmons-Goodson then scrutinized the majority and concurrence’s reliance on DOC’s “policy” of limited good behavior credits for life inmates. This policy was owed no deference, argued Justice Timmons-Goodson, because it was not based on any law or regulation. In fact, the policy contradicted DOC’s own regulations, which mandated distribution of sentence reduction credits except under seven defined situations, none of which applied.20 Therefore, the court was without authority to ignore the provisions’ “plain and unambiguous language.”21

Finally, the dissent emphasized the significance of Jones’ reliance on the sentence reduction credits. The United States Supreme Court has held that an alleged denial of sentence reduction credits is important enough to require some form of legal process.22 Jones’ interest was particularly important since it would determine whether Jones was to be released or not, “a question deeply implicating fundamental constitutional rights.”23


The North Carolina Supreme Court broadly deferred to the Department of Corrections’ ability to interpret and apply sentence reduction credits in Jones v. Keller. This resulted in the conclusion that the defendant was properly awarded credits but not allowed to use them to reduce his sentence.



1 698 S.E.2d 49 (N.C. 2010).

2 Id. at 52.

3 Id. at 53.

4 Id. at 52.

5 Id. at 54. DOC also argued that the credits were calculated for “allowing [Jones] to move to the least restrictive custody grade and to calculate his parole eligibility date.” Id.

6 Id. at 55.

7 Id.

8 See Id. at 59 (“[W]e give controlling weight to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations unless that interpretation is ‘plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.’”) (Newby, J., concurring) (emphasis in original).

9 Id. at 57.

10 Id. at 56.

11 Id.

12 Id. The dissent found this observation significant: “The majority effectively concedes that some process is due by suggesting that the parole process is sufficient.” Id. at 62 (Timmons-Goodson, J., dissenting).

13 Id. at 57.

14 Id.

15 Id. at 58.

16 Id. at 59.

17 Id. at 58.

18 Id. at 60.

19 Id.

20 Id. at 63.

21 Id.

22 See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556-67 (1974) (“It is true that the Constitution itself does not guarantee good-time credit for satisfactory behavior while in prison. But here the State itself has . . . provided a statutory right to good time. . . . [T]he State having created the right to good time . . . , the prisoner’s interest has real substance and is sufficiently embraced within Fourteenth Amendment ‘liberty’ to entitle him to those minimum procedures appropriate under the circumstances. . .”).

23 Id. at 64.