Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cert Grant: May a District Court Give a Defendant a Longer Sentence to Promote Rehabilitation?

Such is the question presented in Tapia v. United States, No. 10-5400, in which the Supreme Court granted cert last Friday.  You may be familiar with the scenario presented in Tapia: the district court imposed a 51-month, top-of-the-guidelines sentence in part to ensure that Tapia would remain in prison long enough to be able to participate in BOP's 500-hour drug treatment program.

According to the petition, the Eighth and Ninth Circuits "allow rehabilitation to be used as a factor in deciding the length of a defendant's prison sentence, once the court decides that a prison sentence is appropriate."  The Second, Third, Eleventh, and D.C. circuits have held otherwise.  To my knowledge, there is no published Fifth Circuit decision addressing this question.

The answer lies in the interplay between two provisions of the Sentencing Reform Act.  Section 3553(a)(2)(D) requires the sentencing court to consider the need "to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner[.]"  Section 3582(a) then instructs the court that, both when determining whether to impose a sentence of imprisonment and when determining the length of an imprisonment term, it "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 promoting correction and rehabilitation." (emphasis added).

Information about the case, including links to the pleadings, is available at SCOTUSblog.  And you should check out the cert petition itself.  It's very good: clear, concise, and (as we now know) effective.  Not a bad model to follow.

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