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August 26, 2023

Interesting Seventh Circuit discussion of rehabilitation considerations as part of imposition of prison term

A dozen years ago, the Supreme Court issued an important little opinion in Tapia v. US, 564 U.S. 319, 332 (2011), which held that federal sentencing statutes preclude "sentencing courts from imposing or lengthening a prison term to promote an offender’s rehabilitation."  As explained in this post from back in 2011, I helped prepare an amicus brief in Tapia making arguments that did not prevail, driven by a concern that a broad ruling in Tapia might in other cases dissuade sentencing judges from being candid about their interests in helping defendants get needed treatment or from giving appropriate thought to sentencing advocacy that sounded in rehabilitative terminology.  I give that backdrop to explain why I found interesting, encouraging and blog worthy a Seventh Circuit panel opinion from this past week in US v. Long, No. 22-2275 (7th Cir. Aug. 22, 2023) (available here), which starts this way:

This case presents another variation on the challenges posed for sentencing judges by instructions from Congress and the Supreme Court about the required, permissible, and prohibited roles of rehabilitation in sentencing.

Appellant Delvarez Long is serving an above-guideline prison term for possessing a firearm after being convicted of a felony. He argues on appeal that the district court plainly erred by imposing a prison term in part to rehabilitate him, contrary to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a) as construed in Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319 (2011).  We affirm.  Rehabilitation is an important consideration in most sentences.  Tapia permits a judge to discuss rehabilitation so long as she does not make rehabilitation a primary consideration in deciding whether to impose a prison sentence or how long it should be.  Our review of this record does not show a plain error under Tapia

The final two paragraphs of the thoughtful Long opinion highlights why I was worried about how Tapia might disrupt sound sentencing practices while seeking to make sure that it does not:

Section 3582(a) and Tapia put district courts in a difficult position.  Courts must ignore rehabilitation as a goal when imposing or lengthening a prison sentence, even though they must consider rehabilitation at the same hearing, when deciding about supervised release and appropriate conditions. See 18 U.S.C. § 3583(c).  As we said in Shaw, Tapia forces courts to demonstrate “their consideration of the offender’s need for rehabilitation while also disavowing that consideration as a reason for any resulting term of imprisonment.” 39 F.4th at 459.  We ordinarily want a judge to engage with a defendant’s individual history and challenges rather than to apply the Sentencing Guidelines mechanically.  In that engagement, though, Tapia can cast a shadow over thoughtful comments that address a defendant’s unique circumstances or encourage a defendant to take advantage of rehabilitative programs while incarcerated.

We therefore reaffirm the thrust of Shaw: to show a Tapia error, a defendant must show that the district court focused exclusively or disproportionately on rehabilitation in deciding whether to impose a prison term or how long a term should be.  References to rehabilitative programs in prison in passing or when describing opportunities available while serving a sentence selected for permissible reasons will not lead us to find error, let alone plain error.  At the same time, it might be helpful for a sentencing court to include a candid and explicit disclaimer to the effect that rehabilitation goals did not affect whether a prison term was imposed or how long it would be.

August 26, 2023 at 02:54 PM | Permalink


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