What’s the Deal with Year-and-a-Day Sentences? Or, Why Defendants Welcome the Extra Day

By Sara Kropf

Just this week, a federal judge sentenced a former University of Arkansas engineering professor to a year and a day in prison. He had pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the FBI.

I’ve written before about how a false statements (a/k/a “a 1001,” a/k/a 18 U.S.C. § 1001) charge is weak sauce for a prosecutor. It’s a common fallback to resolve a case through a plea agreement when (a) the government knows it will have a hard time proving its primary charge, and (b) the defendant doesn’t want to risk of going to trial on all of the charges because the sentence if convicted on any of them would be much higher.

For example, DOJ initially indicted the professor for 42 counts of wire fraud and two counts of passport fraud. He faced 20 years in prison. The plea deal was a single count of making a false statement with a max of 5 years—and most sentences for false statements are much shorter than that maximum (many involve zero jail time). Think about how weak DOJ’s case must have been it it was willing to resolve a 42-count indictment for a single false statement charge.

After seeing the press release, I realized that people who are not criminal defense lawyers may wonder why a judge would sentence someone to a year and a day. Why tack on one extra day? What’s the point? Is it petty nonsense about the government wanting a sentence of more than a year?

That extra day is a gift to the defendant. It can mean that the person serves only about 10.5 months rather than all 12 months. Six weeks in prison is a long time and anything that reduces the time in prison is a good thing.  

Here’s how it works:

In the federal system, there is no parole. You cannot get released early through appealing to a parole board and explaining that you’ve been on good behavior during your time in prison. There is no Shawshank Redemption moment in the federal prison system. Parole still exists in many states, but the federal parole system ended in 1987 with the advent of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

There is a federal statute that permits early release if the inmate receives what are generally called “good time credits.” Sometimes the process is called “good behavior.” Under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b):

a prisoner who is serving a term of imprisonment of more than 1 year other than a term of imprisonment for the duration of the prisoner’s life, may receive credit toward the service of the prisoner’s sentence of up to 54 days for each year of the prisoner’s sentence imposed by the court, subject to determination by the Bureau of Prisons that, during that year, the prisoner has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.

The statute says you get about 54 days for a year of good behavior—or about 15%. This applies for any length sentence, except life sentences. So, if someone is sentenced to 10 years in prison, the good time credits could add up to nearly 18 months.

Key here, though, the statute provides that good time credits only apply for a prison term “of more than 1 year.” As a result, judges will often sentence defendants to a year and a day as the Arkansas judge did. This is a way to impose a significant prison term but also allowing the defendant to take advantage of good time credits and to encourage good behavior in prison. There are also situations where a judge will sentence someone to 1 year. That’s deliberate; the judge wants to ensure that the person serves the whole year.

Most of our clients who are charged in white-collar cases do not have any problem getting good time credits, which are awarded for not violating institution rules and regulations. Our clients are generally placed in low-security facilities where violence is extremely rare. Although the programs are far from robust, there are more opportunities to have a job and participate in other activities to fill the long, boring, lonely days. It is easier to follow the rules when you don’t spend all day bored out of your mind. And, generally, these types of clients are rule followers. (Yes, I understand, they have been found guilty or pleaded guilty to a crime, but they are rarely people who have lived a life of crime or have zero regard for the “system.”)

If you have more questions about good time credits, the amazing Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) has a link here to a helpful FAQ about the topic.

Who knew that one day could be so important?

One comment

  1. Another interesting article that answers a question…why. One more day? Thanks for explaining it so clearly.

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