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Kentucky Department of Corrections v. Dixon

Supreme Court of Kentucky

April 18, 2019



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Angela Turner Dunham Justice and Public Safety Cabinet

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andrea Reed Assistant Public Advocate



         Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 197.047 allows work-time sentence credit to inmates, but the credit is not available to a prisoner who is serving a sentence for a violent offense. Although the trial court upheld the Kentucky Department of Corrections' (Department) denial of work-credit to Mark Dixon, an inmate serving a sentence for both violent and nonviolent offenses, the Court of Appeals reversed that decision. The Court of Appeals concluded that Dixon's aggregate sentence for three separate crimes can be separated into discrete parts, and after completion of 85% of the sentence he received for a violent offense he was entitled to work-credit on the remaining portion of his sentence, i.e., the years attributable to nonviolent crimes. We granted discretionary review to address the application of KRS 197.047 to inmates serving an aggregate sentence composed of consecutive sentences for both violent and nonviolent offenses. We conclude that a violent offender's aggregate sentence cannot be separated into discrete violent and nonviolent components for the purposes of awarding work-time sentence credit, and thus reverse the Court of Appeals.


         In October 2000, Dixon was indicted for first-degree burglary, first-degree assault, and second-degree assault. A jury found Dixon guilty of the burglary charge and he subsequently entered guilty pleas to the assault crimes. In 2001, the Fayette Circuit Court sentenced Dixon to fifteen years for first-degree burglary, ten years for first-degree assault, and one year for assault under extreme emotional disturbance. The final judgment and order required Dixon to serve the three sentences consecutively, resulting in a total sentence of twenty-six years in prison.

         In 2014, Dixon initiated an administrative review of his sentence, contending that because the sentence for his only violent offense - the ten-year first-degree assault sentence - had been served, he was entitled to work-time credit. Throughout the review and appeal process, the Department denied the credit on the grounds that Dixon's total combined sentence of twenty-six years was not partitionable by offense and, as a violent offender under KRS 439.3401, he was not allowed any work-time credit. After exhausting his administrative review remedies, Dixon filed a declaratory judgment action in Franklin Circuit Court seeking work-time credit on his separate nonviolent sentences. The trial court concluded Dixon was not entitled to work-time credit under KRS 197.047, which specifically disallows credit to inmates serving a sentence for a violent offense, and dismissed the petition.

         On appeal, a divided Court of Appeals' panel reversed the trial court, with the majority concluding Dixon was entitled to work-time credit on his nonviolent offense sentences. The dissent disagreed on the basis that the Department's decisions awarding such credit are always discretionary under the controlling statute, KRS 197.047(7). The Court of Appeals remanded the case with directions for the trial court to enter an order requiring the Department to award Dixon work-time credit after he served the mandatory 85% of the sentence for the violent offense.[1] This Court granted discretionary review.


         The resolution of this appeal primarily depends upon the interpretation of two statutes: KRS 197.047, relating to work-time sentence credit for state prisoners, and KRS 532.120, relating to calculating terms of imprisonment. The two questions raised are 1) whether the disallowance of sentence credit to a violent offender under KRS 197.047(6)(b) applies to the aggregate sentence imposed pursuant to KRS 532.120(1)(b) when it is composed of sentences for both violent and nonviolent offenses; and 2) if the disallowance does not apply to the aggregate sentence, whether the Department's award of work-time credit toward a nonviolent sentence is wholly discretionary under KRS 197.047(7).[2]We conclude that the prohibition in KRS 197.047(6)(b) applies to the aggregate sentence rather than disallowing work-time credit for only a component violent-offense sentence. Having so concluded, we do not reach the contingent second question regarding the Department's discretion.

         Throughout this matter, the Department has contended that under KRS 532.120 (1)(b) Dixon's three consecutive, indeterminate sentences were aggregated into a single 26-year sentence and there is no authority for "unpacking" the sentence so that KRS 197.047 work-time credit may apply to any portion of the sentence received for a nonviolent offense, i.e., the sixteen years attributable to the burglary (fifteen years) and assault under extreme emotional disturbance (one year). Dixon counters that interpreting the prohibition in KRS 197.047(6)(b) to apply also to the nonviolent component of his aggregate sentence would render the statute's explicit application to a sentence for a "violent offense" pointless. Dixon also disputes the Department's position that his 26-year sentence cannot be "unpacked," pointing to his parole eligibility being calculated at 85% on the ten-year violent offense and 20% on the nonviolent offenses. We conclude the applicable statutes support the Department's position on an aggregate sentence, but before turning to the specific statutes we review some guiding principles.

         As we stated in Saxton v. Commonwealth, 315 S.W.3d 293, 300 (Ky. 2010), "[d]iscerning and effectuating the legislative intent is the first and cardinal rule of statutory construction." Legislative intent is derived from the plain reading of a statute's language unless there is ambiguity. See MPM Fin. Group, Inc. v. Morton, 289 S.W.3d 193, 197 (Ky. 2009) (citing Whittaker v. McClure, 891 S.W.2d 80, 83 (Ky. 1995)). Generally, "[t]he statute must be read as a whole and in context with other parts of the law. All parts of the statute must be given equal effect so that no part of the statute will become meaningless or ineffectual." Lewis v. Jackson Energy Co-op. Corp., 189 S.W.3d 87, 92 (Ky. 2005). Likewise, when construing multiple statutes, the statutes are read "in harmony with one another in order to effectuate all statutes, if possible." Castle v. Commonwealth., 411 S.W.3d 754, 757-58 (Ky. 2013) (citing Ledford v. Faulkner, 661 S.W.2d 475, 476 (Ky. 1983)). In construing statutes, we "presume that the General Assembly did not intend an absurd statute or an unconstitutional one." Shawnee Telecom Res., Inc. v. Brown, 354 S.W.3d 542, 551 (Ky. 2011) (citing Layne v. Newberg, 841 S.W.2d 181 (Ky. 1992)).

         Statutory construction principles are front and center in this case because credit against a prisoner's sentence is a matter of statute. "There is no constitutional or inherent right of a convicted person to be conditionally released before the expiration of a valid sentence." Greenholtz v. Inmates of Nebraska Penal & Corr. Complex,442 U.S. 1, 7 (1979); see Huff v. Commonwealth.,763 S.W.2d 106, 108 (Ky. 1988) (citations omitted). Nevertheless, Congress and our General Assembly, respectively, may enact sentence credit statutes allowing for an inmate's early release because such statutes can serve the public-interest purposes of rehabilitation and deterrence. See Greenholtz, 442 U.S at 7-8; Fowler v. Black,364 S.W.2d 164 (Ky. 1963) ("Since the benefit that a prisoner may receive under [KRS 197.045] is a matter of legislative grace, the General Assembly could impose such conditions as it deems best for society.") (citing Willar ...

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