The D.C. Circuit weighed in today on an important issue that has split the circuits evenly: whether a sentencing court can give extra time in prison, to increase the opportunity for rehabilitation of the prisoner. Some circuits say it’s fine, some say it’s prohibited by law.
18 U.S.C. § 3553 says there are four purposes of criminal punishment:
(1) “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense;” [retribution]
(2) “to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;” [deterrence]
(3) “to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant;” [removal]
(4) “to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner.” [rehabilitation]
18 U.S.C. § 3582 says that a sentencing court has to consider those four purposes of punishment in deciding whether to impose a prison sentence, and in deciding how long a prison sentence should be. However, it adds that the court must recognize “that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”
In other words, the law implicitly recognizes that prison, in and of itself, doesn’t rehabilitate people. Departments of “Corrections” have nothing to do with correcting people’s behavior. (It’s Orwellian, isn’t it? And so is the concept of incarcerating people for the purpose of re-education.)
This comes as no surprise to anyone with any experience with the criminal justice system. Imprisonment does not make people stop committing crimes. Studies have shown that roughly 83% of people who get arrested will never get in trouble again after that one single encounter with the system. Either they’re scared straight, or their behavior was a one-off exception to an otherwise blameless life. This is why we have consent decrees, adjournments in contemplation of dismissal, and the like. Most people, if given a second chance, will never get in trouble again. Incarceration is completely unnecessary to “rehabilitate” these people.
The other 17% or so? They keep coming back. Incarceration does not stop them from getting in trouble again once they get out. It is stupidly obvious that prison does not rehabilitate repeat offenders.
Rehabilitation is not so much an aspect of punishment, so much as it is an opportunity incidental to it. There certainly are life-altering programs, typically long-term programs, that can get people out of drug dependencies or ways of life conducive to criminal behavior. But these are exceptions, not the rule. They change circumstances, not behavior. And they can sometimes be best administered in an incarcerated setting — but often they are just as effective in a non-jail setting.
Meanwhile, the circuits are split on just what § 3582 means when it says “the 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 . . . [recognize] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”
Some circuits — like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth Circuits — say that the court should not decide whether to impose prison based on considerations of rehabilitation, but it is okay to increase a prison sentence for the purposes of rehabilitation. Other circuits — like the Second, Third, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits — say that courts shouldn’t increase prison sentences, either.
Today, the D.C. Circuit joined the Second and Third Circuits in saying that § 3582 prohibits courts from increasing a prison sentence for the purpose of rehabilitation.
In re: Sealed Case*http://pacer.cadc.uscourts.gov/common/opinions/200907/08-3029-1198396.pdf*, No. 08-3029 (July 28, 2009) dealt with an older defendant with a long rap sheet and a drug addiction. His name is sealed because at one time he had tried to cooperate with the feds, albeit unsuccessfully. The defendant pled guilty to selling less than five grams of heroin. Ordinarily, with his criminal history category and acceptance of responsibility, this would have given him a sentencing range of 24 to 30 months. However, what with his felony record and all, his Guidelines range wound up being 151 to 188 months (12.5 – 15.5 years).
This is only advisory, of course, and the court then weighed the various § 3553 factors to figure out what sentence to actually impose. The judge said his recidivism was due to his drug addiction, and the case only involved a small amount of drugs. The judge added that the defendant could benefit from some of the programs available in prison, and that these “would actually be more available and more useful for the defendant over a somewhat longer period of time than it would over a very short period of time.”
In the end, the judge went down to a sentence of 132 months (11 years), along with a recommendation that the defendant be admitted to the prison’s “500-hour” drug treatment program.
The defendant appealed, saying that the judge would have given him a shorter sentence, but increased the sentence for the purposes of rehabilitation, and that was improper. It urged the Circuit to adopt the rule of the Second and Third Circuits.
The government, on the other hand, said they should adopt the Ninth Circuit’s rule instead, permitting increases in sentencing for the purpose of rehabilitation.
In its 2-1 ruling today, the D.C. Circuit said that the plain language of the statute bars courts from seeking to achieve rehabilitation through imprisonment. A defendant can be imprisoned for other purposes, and then take advantage of rehabilitative programs while in jail, but those programs cannot be the reason for incarceration.
The government argued that this only prohibits choosing jail over a non-jail sentence based on such considerations. Once the sentencing court has decided to incarcerate, § 3553 requires courts to consider rehabilitation, so it must be a reason for determining the length of the sentence.
The Circuit said this made no sense. “If, as the government concedes, imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting rehabilitation, how can more imprisonment serve as an appropriate means of promoting rehabilitation?”
The court went on to find that the sentencing judge’s comments indicate that the defendant probably got extra time so as to give him more opportunities for rehabilitation. It was reasonably likely that his sentence would have been shorter, otherwise.
Maybe not a dramatically shorter sentence — after all, the judge did say that selling heroin is serious, and that the defendant had a lifelong pattern of recidivism. But that’s not the point. The point is that the defendant might have gotten a shorter sentence.
Any unwarranted extra time in prison is unfair. It’s not what our system is supposed to permit. So the Circuit vacated the sentence, and remanded for new sentencing.
The defendant might wind up getting the same sentence at the end of the day. But the sentencing court is going to have to explain that the reasons for the length of the sentence do not include the extra opportunity for rehabilitation from extra months in jail.
This exacerbates the split among the circuits. And the issue is an important one, involving the deprivation of liberty and freedoms for the purposes of social engineering.
We wouldn’t be surprised to see the Supreme Court take up this issue in the near future. Perhaps even with this case.