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Opinion analysis: SRA prohibits rehabilitation through incarceration

On Thursday, in Tapia v. United States (No. 10-5400), the Court held that the Sentencing Reform Act – in particular, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a) – prohibits federal courts from “imposing or lengthening a prison term” to promote the rehabilitation of a criminal defendant.  After Tapia was convicted of, inter alia, smuggling unauthorized aliens into the United States, the district court imposed a sentence of fifty-one months – which was at the upper end of the recommended Sentencing Guidelines range – so that Tapia would be in prison long enough to qualify for participation in a drug rehabilitation program. On appeal, Tapia argued that the district court’s imposition of a longer sentence to ensure her rehabilitation violated 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a), which provides that a sentencing court, when determining the length of a prison sentence, “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.”

The Ninth Circuit affirmed Tapia’s sentence.   But on Thursday the Court unanimously reversed.  In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court began by reviewing the history of sentencing practices in the United States. Noting that the now-discredited indeterminate sentencing regime was “premised on a faith in rehabilitation,” it explained that indeterminate sentencing fell out of favor, both because it resulted in disparities in sentencing and because lawmakers “increasingly doubted that prison programs could ‘rehabilitate individuals on a routine basis.’”  In place of that regime, Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1984, which not only employs determinate sentences, but also explicitly outlines the “four purposes of sentencing generally” – retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation – and the circumstances under which each purpose can be taken into account.

The Court then turned to the text of Section 3582(a), observing that its analysis here could start and end with the plain language of the statute “given the clarity of that provision.” The Court explained that common definitions of “recognize” and “appropriate” make clear that “§ 3582(a) tells courts that they should acknowledge that imprisonment is not suitable for the purpose of promoting rehabilitation.”  And consistent with the express terms of the statute, they should do so both when “determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment,” and “if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed,” when “determining the length of the term.”

The Court also noted three additional reasons that reinforce its reading of the statute.  First, another provision of the Sentencing Reform Act, Section 994(K), reiterates the intent behind Section 3582 by requiring 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 a defendant.” Accordingly, Congress consistently instructed each actor in the sentencing process not to regard imprisonment as a means of rehabilitation.  Second, the SRA does not address the issue of empowering sentencing courts to require offender participation in rehabilitation programs. When Congress wanted courts to have that power in other, non-incarceration contexts, it expressly granted it.  Indeed, not only are courts without such authority, but “the BOP has plenary control” over those matters.  In this case, for example, the sentencing court could not ensure that Tapia would be placed in the drug rehabilitation program.  Third, the principal Senate Report on the SRA indicates that although some lawmakers wanted rehabilitation excluded from the SRA as a sentencing objective altogether, Congress instead maintained that rehabilitation plays an important role in assessing the suitability of sanctions that do not involve incarceration.

Finally, the Court acknowledged that a sentencing court does not err when it discusses the benefits of rehabilitative opportunities in the prison context.  Here, however, the record suggests that the district court imposed a longer sentence to ensure that Tapia could participate in the drug rehabilitation program. And Section 3582(a) prohibits that action.  The Court ultimately remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit “to consider the effect of Tapia’s failure to object to the sentence when imposed.”

Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined, to express her skepticism that the district court did in fact lengthen Tapia’s sentence to promote rehabilitation. 

Recommended Citation: Beth Neitzel, Opinion analysis: SRA prohibits rehabilitation through incarceration, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 19, 2011, 1:20 PM),