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Lifetime Supervised Release Struck Down as Punitive

Halting the government’s watch on two cocaine traffickers for the rest of their lives, the Second Circuit ruled Monday that supervised release “is not punishment in lieu of incarceration.”

MANHATTAN (CN) — Emphasizing that supervised release is not about retribution, the Second Circuit freed two convicted cocaine traffickers on Monday from having to spend the rest of their lives under federal supervision.

This morning’s ruling marks the second time that Kelvin Burden and Jermaine Buchanan have chipped away at what once had been life sentences.

The pair were convicted by a jury in 2003 of violating federal anti-racketeering laws, committing violent crimes, and attempting murder to protect their cocaine business out of Norwalk, Connecticut.

Burden, who supervised the operation, also received a conviction for murder.

About a decade into their sentences, the men learned that a key cooperator partially recanted his allegations and admitted to previously undisclosed government benefits.

Federal prosecutors in turn agreed to strike the heaviest counts of Burden and Buchanan’s convictions, and the men entered into plea deals that carried a maximum of a little more than 30 years’ imprisonment.

When U.S. District Judge Janet Hall sentenced the men to the top of that range, however, she added a lifetime of supervised release onto that term.

A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit overturned that decision unanimously today.

“A district court properly weighs the seriousness of the offense as relevant to the application of these mandatory considerations when imposing a term of supervised release,” the unsigned opinion states. “But when a supervised release term is inflected with retributive interests — as appears may have been the case here — the district court commits procedural error and the supervised release term cannot stand.”

In the ruling, U.S. Circuit Judges Robert Katzmann, Amalya Kearse and Debra Ann Livingston  found that supervised release “is not a punishment in lieu of incarceration.”

That finding is consistent with a report on supervised release from the U.S. Sentencing Commission in July 2010.

“The primary purpose of supervised release — to facilitate the reintegration of federal prisoners back into the community — is similar to the purpose of the Second Chance Act of 2007… which was intended to ‘reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and help state and local governments better address the growing population of ex-offenders returning to their communities,’” the report says.

Burden and Buchanan’s cases will return to Judge Hall’s court for resentencing.

Their attorneys did not respond to email requests for comment.

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