ILNews

Supreme Court clarifies credit time rules

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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A trio of opinions from the Indiana Supreme Court gives trial courts additional guidance about how to handle prisoner claims regarding how credit time is applied to sentences.

The three-ruling package deal came down late Thursday, with the court simultaneously granting transfer and deciding Keith Neff v. State of Indiana, No. 49S02-0806-CR-362; and Charles Young v. State of Indiana, Nos. 27S02-0806-PC-363 and 27S02-0806-PC-364.

Justice Frank Sullivan authored the decisions that are all designed to clarify a ruling the Supreme Court made in Robinson v. State, 805 N.E.2d 783 (Ind. 2004), which discussed procedures available to prisoners for correcting a sentence erroneous on the face of the judgment of conviction. These collateral issues are now being addressed in these new opinions.

First, in the main holding in Neff, the court unanimously decided that an abstract of judgment may function in the place of a formal judgment of conviction. But a prisoner must exhaust all administrative remedies within the Department of Correction before seeking judicial relief if the agency fails to give that person earned credit time, the court held.

Receiving a 20-year sentence for pleading guilty to a felony charge of dealing methamphetamine, Neff filed a motion claiming that he was only given half of the total 1,712 days of credit time toward his sentence. But the trial court and appellate court both rejected his argument on grounds that he'd only challenged an abstract of judgment, rather than an actual judgment of conviction. The Court of Appeals had relied on the holding in Robinson, where the justices had previously concluded state statutes governing credit time and motions to correct sentence couldn't be based on abstracts.

But Neff faced a practical problem: Marion County doesn't make a practice of issuing a formal judgment of conviction in addition to an abstract of judgment, the court found, which made it impossible for Neff to comply with the Robinson requirement.

"We would prefer that all trial courts issue judgments of conviction in compliance with I.C. 35-38-3-2," Justice Sullivan wrote. "However, we recognize that this has not historically occurred in Marion County, which has a very high volume of criminal cases. Therefore, when a defendant files a motion to correct an erroneous sentence in a county that does not issue judgments of conviction (we are currently aware only of Marion County), the trial court's abstract of judgment will serve as an appropriate substitute ...."

The court also wrote that it's asked the Indiana Judicial Conference and the Supreme Court's Records Management Committee to study and report on whether any further action is needed.

But even when relying on the abstract, Neff didn't go through the DOC's administrative process adequately and had mistakenly calculated his credit time, justices determined. That led to the second part of its holding on exhausting administrative remedies, and ultimately caused him to lose on his claims for relief.

In the Young cases, justices were able to expand on what it held in the main opinion.

Justices held that a prisoner, in order to present a claim in state court, must show what the relevant DOC administrative grievance procedures are and that they've been exhausted. They also formalized a finding in support of what the Court of Appeals has previously held "... that post-conviction proceedings are the appropriate procedure for considering properly presented claims for educational credit time."

Young is serving a 40-year sentence from a 1992 conviction of conspiracy to deal crack cocaine, and he filed two post-conviction petitions regarding aspects of credit time while he was incarcerated. But the justices affirmed the Court of Appeals, which had determined that Young should have gone through the DOC's administrative processes to resolve the issue rather than relying on the state court system.

Ultimately, Young lost because he'd already filed at least one post-conviction petition, and the court admonished him in both opinions for not providing enough evidence to show that he'd gone through the administrative procedures or that he'd earned educational and good time credit.
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