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Gain-time law struck for pre-1983 inmates

The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a 1983 change in Florida's early release program unfairly lengthened the sentences of thousands of older prison inmates. The 6-1 decision relied in part on a 192-year-old U.S. Supreme Court case guaranteeing that a new law won't impose a harsher punishment on a person who committed a crime while an older law was in effect.

The high court struck down a 1983 law on "incentive gain-time" as it applies to inmates who were sent to prison before that year. The court said the change unconstitutionally lengthened the sentences of those inmates, and the court ordered the Department of Corrections to recalculate the gain-time under the old rules.

The Corrections Department must now review the files of every inmate sent to prison before the 1983 law took effect to decide how many might be released or have significant reductions in their sentences.

"We have identified several thousand that could be affected by this," said department spokesman Bob Macmaster. "That does not mean anywhere near that number will be released."

The decision makes no change in the gain-time status of any inmate sentenced after the 1983 law took effect.

The decision came in the case of 29-year-old Donald Waldrup, who was serving a 15-year sentence at Avon Park Correctional Facility for kidnapping and theft. Waldrup was released in September but contended he should have gotten out sooner.

Before 1983, an inmate could qualify for a maximum of 37 days a month in incentive gain-time, a reward for hard work, exceptional personal conduct and academic study. In addition, he could get nine days of basic gain-time, which was rewarded if the inmate stayed out of trouble.

Combined, an inmate could get 545 days per year lopped off his sentence under the maximum awards for both programs.

In 1983, the incentive reward was lowered to 20 days per month and the basic reward was raised to an automatic 10 days unless the prisoner was a discipline problem. That lowered the total possible gain-time to 360 days a year.

For someone such as Waldrup, serving a 15-year sentence, the change effectively increased his time in prison by one and a half years, the court said.

The court left intact the 1983 change in the basic gain-time program, saying it did not harm the older inmates because it actually increased the potential reduction in their sentences. And the justices said the corrections department still has discretion over how to award the gain-time to its inmates.