(CN) – Federal courts cannot impose or lengthen prison terms to promote a criminal defendant’s rehabilitation, the unanimous Supreme Court ruled Thursday, noting that the practice is barred by the Sentencing Reform Act.
After Alejandra Tapia was convicted of smuggling undocumented aliens into the United States, the federal judge imposed the maximum recommended sentence of 51 months. He noted that this sentence ensured that Tapia would qualify for the Bureau of Prison’s 500-hour Residential Drug Abuse Program, and that, while on bail, Tapia had failed to appear in court and was found in an apartment with methamphetamine, a sawed-off shotgun and stolen mail.
Though Tapia did not object to the sentence at the time it was imposed, she argued on appeal that federal law instructs sentencing courts to “recogniz[e] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”
The 9th Circuit affirmed the sentence, and other circuit courts have been divided over similar cases, according to the Supreme Court.
Ultimately the justices said the text of the law Tapia cited clearly warns that rehabilitation is an unsuitable justification for a prison term. There is also more support for the finding, they added.
“Equally illuminating here is a statutory silence – the absence of any provision granting courts the power to ensure that offenders participate in prison rehabilitation programs,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote. “For when Congress wanted sentencing courts to take account of rehabilitative needs, it gave courts the authority to direct appropriate treatment for offenders.”
“If Congress had similarly meant to allow courts to base prison terms on offenders’ rehabilitative needs, it would have given courts the capacity to ensure that offenders participate in prison correctional programs,” she added. “But in fact, courts do not have this authority.”
Kagan emphasized that the decision does not mean that the justices disapproved of Tapia’s sentencing.
“So the sentencing court here did nothing wrong – and probably something very right – in trying to get Tapia into an effective drug treatment program,” Kagan wrote.
“But the record indicates that the court may have done more – that it may have selected the length of the sentence to ensure that Tapia could complete the 500 Hour Drug Program. … [The sentencing judge’s] statements suggest that the court may have calculated the length of Tapia’s sentence to ensure that she receive certain rehabilitative services. And that a sentencing court may not do. As we have held, a court may not impose or lengthen a prison sentence to enable an offender to complete a treatment program or otherwise to promote rehabilitation.”
On remand, the justices ordered the 9th Circuit to “consider the effect of Tapia’s failure to object to the sentence when imposed.”
In a concurring opinion, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito said they were skeptical that the sentencing judge imposed or lengthened Tapia’s sentence to promote her rehabilitation.
They agreed reversal is appropriate since the sentencing judge’s comments were not clear, but noted that he had carefully reviewed the sentencing factors, and Tapia’s criminal conduct and history.
“The District Judge’s comments at sentencing suggest that he believed the need to deter Tapia from engaging in further criminal conduct warranted a sentence of 51 months’ incarceration,” Sotomayor wrote. “Granted, the judge also mentioned the need to provide drug treatment through the RDAP. The 51-month sentence he selected, however, appears to have had no connection to eligibility for the RDAP. … Even the 36-month mandatory minimum would have qualified Tapia for participation in the RDAP. I thus find it questionable that the judge lengthened her term of imprisonment beyond that necessary for deterrence in the belief that a 51-month sentence was necessary for rehabilitation.”