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March 2, 2011

Will Pepper prompt many more federal sentencing judges to focus on post-offense rehabilitation?

The significant federal sentencing ruling by the Supreme Court today in Pepper (basics here) is only technically concerned with whether district judges are permitted to consider evidence of a defendant's post-sentencing rehabilitation at a re-sentencing following an appellate reversal of a defendant's original sentence.  But in the course of saying that district judges do have authority to consider this kind of evidence, Justice Sotomayor' opinion for the Court highlights reasons why any evidence of a defendant's rehabilitation is a critically important concern for an initial sentencing decision in which a district judge is seeking to comply with the statutory instructions of  18 U.S.C. §3553(a)

Consider in this context these passages (with some cites omitted) from the Pepper opinion:

[E]vidence of postsentencing rehabilitation may be highly relevant to several of the §3553(a) factors that Congress has expressly instructed district courts to consider at sentencing.  For example, evidence of postsentencing rehabilitation may plainly be relevant to “the history and characteristics of the defendant.” §3553(a)(1).  Such evidence may also be pertinent to “the need for thesentence imposed” to serve the general purposes of sentencing set forth in §3553(a)(2) — in particular, to “afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct,” “protect the public from further crimes of the defendant,” and “provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational train-ing . . . or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner.” §§3553(a)(2)(B)–(D).... Postsentencing rehabilitation may also critically inform a sentencing judge’s overarching duty under §3553(a) to “impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to comply with the sentencing purposes set forth in §3553(a)(2)....

Pepper’s postsentencing conduct also sheds light on thelikelihood that he will engage in future criminal conduct, a central factor that district courts must assess when imposing sentence.  See §§3553(a)(2)(B)–(C); Gall, 552 U.S., at 59 (“Gall’s self-motivated rehabilitation ... lends strong support to the conclusion that imprisonment was not necessary to deter Gall from engaging in future criminal conduct or to protect the public from his future criminal acts” (citing §§3553(a)(2)(B)–(C))).  As recognized by Pepper’s probation officer, Pepper’s steady employment, as well as his successful completion of a 500-hour drug treatment program and his drug-free condition, also suggest a diminished need for “educational or vocational training ... or other correctional treatment.” §3553(a)(2)(D).  Finally, Pepper’s exemplary postsentencing conduct may be taken as the most accurate indicator of “his present purposes and tendencies and significantly to suggest the period of restraint and the kind of discipline that ought to be imposed upon him.”  Ashe, 302 U.S., at 55. Accordingly, evidence of Pepper’s postsentencing rehabilitation bears directly on the District Court’s overarching duty to “impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to serve the purposes of sentencing. §3553(a).

As the question in the title of this post is designed to highlight, one could readily replace the word "postsentencing" in these passages with the word "post-offense" without any loss of meaning.  All the substantive reasons why the Court says sentencing judges should be concerned with postsentencing rehabilitation apply with equal force — and maybe with even greater force — to post-offense rehabilitation.  (Indeed, the cite/quote from the Gall opinion in this context, a case concerning only post-offense rehabilitation, reinforces the point that a majority of Justices views these considerations comparably.)

Since Booker (and even before Booker), it has been common for federal defense attorneys to stress evidence of a defendant's post-offense rehabilitation before an initial sentencing.  And since Booker (and especially since Gall), some (many?) federal district judges have been inclined to give some (or even considerable) weight to such evidence.  But I have always sensed that some (many?)  federal district judges have been unwilling to give too much (or even any) weight to such evidence.  I am certain Pepper will prompt defense attorneys to be even more aggressive when presenting and making arguments based on post-offense rehabilitation.  But, as my post title suggests, I am less sure if Pepper will lead many more federal sentencing judges to focus on such evidence when discharging, as Pepper puts it, their "overarching duty to 'impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary' to serve the purposes of sentencing.  §3553(a)."

Related posts on the Pepper ruling by the Supreme Court:

March 2, 2011 at 03:44 PM | Permalink


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