On appeal from New Jersey State Parole Board.
Michels and D'Annunzio. The opinion of the court was delivered by D'Annunzio, J.A.D.
[245 NJSuper Page 33] Appellant, a prison inmate, appeals from the parole board's calculation of commutation credits applied against a 20-month future parole eligibility date.
Appellant was sentenced in 1984 and 1985 for multiple convictions under multiple indictments and an accusation. His aggregate term after modification of the sentences was 13 years with a parole ineligibility period of four years and 235 days. Under the modified sentences the parole ineligibility term expired on September 1, 1989.
In October 1989, the board denied parole to appellant. In accordance with N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.21(a), the schedule it promulgated pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.56a.,*fn1 the board established appellant's future parole eligibility as 20 months from his initial eligibility date. N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.56b requires that "[s]uch future parole eligibility date shall take into account usual remissions of sentence for good behavior. . . ."
N.J.S.A. 30:4-140 establishes credits for good behavior. It provides in part:
For every year or fractional part of a year of sentence imposed upon any person committed to any State correctional institution for a minimum-maximum term there shall be remitted to him from both the maximum and minimum term of his sentence, for continuous orderly deportment, the progressive time credits indicated in the schedule herein. When a sentence contains a fractional part of a year in either the minimum or maximum thereof, then time credits in reduction of such fractional part of a year shall be calculated at the rate set out in the schedule for each full month of such fractional part of a year of sentence. No time credits shall be calculated as provided for herein on time served by any person in custody between his arrest and the imposition of sentence. In case of any flagrant misconduct the board of managers may declare a forfeiture of the time previously remitted, either in whole or in part, as to them shall seem just.
The statute includes a schedule of credits earned for each year of the sentence imposed. The annual credit increases with the length of the sentence. Thus, an inmate is entitled to 72 days good behavior credit for the first year, an additional 84 days for
the second year, 96 additional days per year for years three through seven, 120 additional days per year for years eight through 12, and so on. In the 30th year, the annual credit is 180 days. A copy of the complete schedule is attached as an appendix.
When the board established appellant's 20-month future eligibility date it deducted 128 days in commutation credits from the 20-month period. It calculated the credits based on the 20-month eligibility period only, as if appellant was serving the first 20 months of his sentence. Thus, the board awarded appellant 72 days for the first 12 months and seven days per month for the next eight months. Appellant contends that the board deprived him of significant rights to commutation credits. Appellant contends that he was beginning the sixth year of his sentence when the board established the 20-month eligibility period and, therefore, he was entitled to 96 days for the first 12 months and 64 days for the next eight months, resulting in 160 days total commutation time to be deducted from the 20-month period.
In response, the parole board relies on N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.2(c)7 which provides:
Where the inmate has been denied parole and required to serve a future eligibility pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.21, a new book eligibility date shall be established by adding the additional term to the current book eligibility date and by including, in the case of an adult inmate, commutation credits based on the additional term only. [Emphasis added.]
Actions of the parole board, as an administrative agency, may be reviewed to determine whether they are arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. In re Hawley, 98 N.J. 108, 112, 484 A.2d 684 (1984). A State administrative rule or policy is presumptively valid, and the burden is on the challenger to overcome the presumption. K.P. v. Albanese, 204 N.J. Super. 166, 175, 497 A.2d 1276 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 102 N.J. 355, 508 A.2d 225 (1985). Appellate review of administrative regulations is "highly circumscribed." Lower Main v. N.J. Housing & Mortgage, 114 N.J. 226, 236, 553 A.2d 798 (1989). We may
overturn an agency's rule or policy only if it is arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable or beyond the scope of delegated power, K.P. v. Albanese, supra, 204 N.J. Super. at 176, 497 A.2d 1276, and we must liberally construe an agency's authority to enable it to accomplish its responsibilities. New Jersey Guild of Hearing Aid Dispensers v. Long, 75 N.J. 544, 562, 384 A.2d 795 (1978). Because of their expertise, administrative agencies are afforded wide discretion in the means utilized to fulfil their delegated tasks. Emmer v. Merin, 233 N.J. Super. 568, 581, 559 A.2d 845 (App.Div.), certif. den., 118 N.J. 181, 570 A.2d 950 (1989).
Applying these principles, we conclude that appellant's contention is without merit. N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.48d. authorizes the board to "promulgate such reasonable rules and regulations, consistent with this act, as may be necessary for the proper discharge of its responsibilities," and N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.56a instructs the board to promulgate a schedule of future parole eligibility dates for inmates denied parole. Pursuant to this dual grant of authority, N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.21(a) (hereafter § 3.21) establishes a schedule of future parole eligibility dates to be utilized when parole is denied to an inmate. Section 3.21(a) establishes four categories of eligibility based on offense or sentence. The future eligibility date is uniform for each category. Under § 3.21(c), a future eligibility date may be "increased or decreased by up to nine months. . . ." Pursuant to this schedule, appellant was given a 20-month eligibility date, less the commutation credits previously described.
In its brief, the board contends that its application of N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.2(c)7, (quoted above at page 35), whereby it calculates commutation credits for purposes of parole eligibility as if the inmate was beginning his sentence, promotes uniformity. Thus, the board's policy prevents one inmate who receives a 20-month future eligibility date from being eligible for parole at an earlier date ...