SCOTUS: Court May Not Impose or Lengthen Prison Term to Promote Defendant's Rehabilitation
When imposing sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2) requires a court to consider certain factors, including rehabilitative factors: the need "to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other appropriate correctional treatment in the most effective manner." But a separate statute, § 3582(a), further provides that, "[t]he court, in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable, recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promiting correction and rehabilitation." (emphasis added).
These superfically contradictory commands led to a circuit split over the question presented in Tapia: "[W]hether the Sentencing Reform Act precludes federal courts from imposing or lengthening a prison term in order to promote a criminal defendant's rehabilitation."
An easy question, as it turns out. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Kagan answered that question "no." She began by observing that, "Our consideration of Tapia's claim starts with the text of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a)—and given the clarity of that provision's language, could end there as well." The statute is plain: "[W]hat Congress said was that when sentencing an offender to prison, the court shall consider all the purposes of punishment except rehabilitation—because imprisonment is not an appropriate means of pursuing that goal."
Then there's the context: a separate provision in the Sentencing Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. § 994(k), "directs the Sentencing Commission to ensure that the Guidelines 'reflect the inappropriateness of imposing a sentence to a term of imprisonment for the purpose of rehabilitating the defendant or providing the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment.'" The take-away? "Each actor at each stage in the sentencing process receives the same message: Do not think about prison as a way to rehabilitate the offender." Moreover, "when Congress wanted sentencing courts to take account of rehabilitative needs, it gave courts the authority to direct appropriate treatment for offenders[,]" as in the case of probation and supervised release. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 3562(a), 3583(e). "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. But in fact, courts do not have this authority." Only BOP can do that.
Finally, there's the legislative history. "[T]he key senate report concerning the SRA" reflects Congress' skepticism "that 'rehabilitation can be induced reliably in a prison setting.'"
Which brings us to the Court's holding: "[A] court may not impose or lengthen a prison sentence to enable an offender to complete a treatment program or otherwise to promote rehabilitation." (Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Alito, wrote separately "to note my skepticism that the District Judge violated this proscription in this case." She otherwise joined the majority's opinion in full.)
Where was the Fifth Circuit on the split, you ask? In United States v. Giddings, the Fives said that, "[t]he legislative history of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 . . . indicates that that the prohibition against considering rehabilitative needs relates to the decision of whether to impose imprisonment, not to the length of the term of imprisonment." 37 F.3d 1091, 1096 (1994). Tapia, of course, abrogates that line of precedent.