Friday, June 17, 2011

Can imprisonment rehabilitate?

The US Supreme Court yesterday held in Tapia v. United States (pdf) that federal law "does not permit a sentencing court to impose or lengthen a prison term in order to foster a defendant’s rehabilitation" in federal cases. (See SCOTUSWiki's case backup page, Doug Berman's first-take analysis here, and coverage from the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, McClatchy Newspapers, and UPI.)

The defendant had been sentenced to the Bureau of Prisons with a recommendation that she participate in the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), but Ms. Tapia argued that the terms of the sentence (a lesser sentence for completing a rehabilitation program," violated a Congressional command that judges “recogniz[e] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” Justice Kagan's opinion declares that "A court does not err by discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison or the benefits of specific treatment or training programs." And a footnote mentions that “Congress did not intend to prohibit courts from imposing less imprisonment in order to promote a defendant’s rehabilitation.” But in this case, wrote Kagan, "the record indicates that the District Court may have increased the length of Tapia’s sentence to ensure her completion of RDAP, something a court may not do."

Kagan identified the four stated purposes of criminal sentences - retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation - but explained that federal law does not allow all of them to be considered in crafting different types of sentences. For example, not only may rehabilitation not be considered when ordering imprisonment, but "retribution" may not be considered when ordering community supervision. Kagan found especially "illuminating ... a statutory silence—the absence of any provision granting courts the power to ensure that offenders participate in prison rehabilitation programs."

The opinion does not impact state courts, interpreting only a federal criminal statute, but this same issue comes up frequently in the context of drug courts, which in Texas may require longer-than-usual incarceration stints in secure lockups known as "community corrections" facilities as a condition of probation for up to two years to facilitate rehabilitation.. For that matter, the statute authorizing drug courts explicitly allows "a court [to] use other drug awareness or drug and alcohol driving awareness programs to treat persons convicted of drug or alcohol related offenses."

So while the federal statute explicitly excludes rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration on the grounds that locking someone up is "not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation," Texas law specifically contemplates imprisonment in a secure facility in pursuit of rehabilitative goals.

The Catch-22 for Texas' stance comes in cases like Tapia's where a defendant is recommended for a treatment program but there are lengthy delays because of a shortage of treatment capacity (Tapia, despite the court's recommendation, never actually entered the federal RDAP program). Another version of that phenomenon: Texas' parole board frequently extends prisoners' time they're incarcerated because they've not completed this or that treatment program, even when the reason they didn't complete it is a lengthy waiting list for services, not anything the prisoner did or didn't do. That's been an issue most particularly in DWI cases, but at various times that observation would also apply to drug treatment, sex-offender treatment, and other rehabilitative programs.

Should rehabilitation goals be considered in sentencing someone to prison? While Kagan finds ample backing to say federal law "precludes sentencing courts from imposing or lengthening a prison term to promote an offender’s rehabilitation," it's an open question - one on which I'd like to hear Grits readers' opinions - whether that's the right policy.

It's also interesting to me, though understandable, that drug treatment in a secure facility is equated in this opinion with pure "imprisonment" with no rehabilitative goals. In Texas political debates and even in the statutes, treatment in a secure facility is considered a separate beast from straight up imprisonment - an "alternative to incarceration," in the parlance. But the offender is still locked up while receiving treatment. What do you think? Is this a distinction without a difference?

17 comments:

Hook Em Horns said...

Should rehabilitation goals be considered in sentencing someone to prison?

Absolutely. Some clients need drug treatment or have other issues that must be addressed to hopefully stop the revolving door of incarceration. At the same time, we have to realize that some offenders cannot be 'fixed' or do not want to be 'fixed' and the reason for incarcerating them becomes, truly, a public safety issue.

A Texas PO said...

It's not often that I read a SCOTUS opinion that is rather enjoyable and entertaining. I don't think I've ever seen an opinion with the phrase "loosey goosey" in it.

I agree that incarcerating someone for the express purpose of rehabilitation is neither logical nor practical. I especially see how extending a prison sentence so the offender can complete a program is a violation of law and rights since sentences are supposed to be final orders. However, I also see that this opinion does not relate to CRTCs, ISFs, and SAFPFs here in Texas when it comes to probationers since the goal is rehabilitation over incarceration (or as you stated, an "alternative to incarceration"). The incarceration is part of the rehabilitation process in these programs and at any point the offender can refuse or deny treatment. I do also see how parole can be affected by this decision, particularly if the Board decides to keep an offender incarcerated to complete a SAFPF or IPTC prior to release when the decision to grant parole has essentially been made. It'll be interesting to see how the state approaches this decision.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

TPO, since SCOTUS was interpreting a federal statute, it shouldn't affect state-level actors.

I wrote this because the differences in federal and state approaches pose interesting questions (those raised at the end of the post and more), but unless I'm misreading things, the decision won't compel anyone in Texas state courts, probation, parole, etc., to change their policies.

rodsmith said...

i dont' know about that grits! they did drop this one little note in the opinion!

"The Catch-22 for Texas' stance comes in cases like Tapia's where a defendant is recommended for a treatment program but there are lengthy delays because of a shortage of treatment capacity (Tapia, despite the court's recommendation, never actually entered the federal RDAP program)."

if the right person in texas took it to court becasue the state extended their sentence becasue of a long wait for a spot....it might cost em big time!

it's ok to order someone sent to rehab. but kind of stupid if the REHAB FACILITY WONT' TAKE THEM! for a few years!

a sneaky suspisious person like myself might assume that was the ONLY REASON the rebah sentence was given in the first place!

A Texas PO said...

Grits, I hear what you're saying, but the decision sets precedent. It's only a matter of time before someone uses this decision in an appeal in Texas. It'll be interesting to see how that argument would play out.

As for how the federal system operates, I often get confused when dealing with the feds and their sentencing practices. Related specifically to this post, I would like to think that imprisonment would lead to rehabilitation, but the BOP just is not set up for that purpose. Kagan noted that rehabilitation is a noble goal, but imprisonment to rehabilitate just is not a logical goal to pursue. I assume that his fear is that if we incarcerated to rehabilitate, we'd end up with even more of our citizens locked up than would be feasible or necessary. I am all for incarceration for public safety when it comes to some of the most heinous individuals among us, but incarcerating someone until they complete a program that says they have been rehabilitated seems a bit of a stretch. As Hook Em Horns noted, some offenders just can't be "fixed" in a correctional setting or have no desire to undergo the process. Does that mean they should stay in prison forever or until they change their minds? I can see an argument for how that type of sentencing structure could be a violation of the 8th amendment.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rod, the graph on the Catch-22 was my comment, not Kagan's!

TPO, maybe you're right, but the opinion tracks VERY closely interpreting the federal statute, and Texas' statute is much different.

I agree the federal sentencing guidelines are difficult to impossible for any layperson to understand. But when Elena Kagan (a "her," fwiw) said rehabilitation is not a purpose of imprisonment, she was quoting from and interpreting a specific dicta to that effect from the federal Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, not espousing her own view on the effectiveness of rehabilitation. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if she personally disagreed with what Congress did in that instance.

Texas law, by contrast, in many instances specifically envisions rehabilitation as an incarceration goal. A plain reading of our statutes would likely yield a much different result.

Alex S. said...

On many occasions in WDTX, the AUSA and the Judge would recognize that a federal prisoner would not be eligible for the 500 drug course unless their sentence was 18 months or higher----so defendants who needed drug treatment would have their term of supervised release revoked and sentenced to at least 18 months as the Judge always rec'd the RDAP---glad for this opinion!

Don said...

I think waiting for a program availability was one of the reasons for the low parole rate, until they kicked it up a little in response to fears of overcrowding. Anyway, incarceration is incarceration, and many offenders choose straight prison over SAFPF. It's easier. This absolutely is incarceration for the express goal of rehabilitation. I agree with Justice Kagan, or the federal statute she was referring to. I don't think there's much rehabilitation that goes on in SAFPF, or any other lockup. TDCJ statistics indicate that programs reduce recidivism, but there is a difference in learning to stay out of jail and rehabilitation. They define "success" much differently than I do. This is not to say that the programs are not better than nothing; they are, a little. But a little amounts to a lot, when you have a prison population the size of Texas'. On another note, political subdivisions including states, counties, and municipalities sometimes use SCOTUS rulings as rationale for some of their own legislation. Some interpret the Constitution to mean not just "Congress shall make no. . . etc., to mean any government entity. The ruling could, one supposes, potentially have some bearing on what states do in the future. I agree with TPO on this point.

Anonymous said...

Some say that nobody taught them how to stay out of prison so someone else must teach them. The theory is they are searching for a way to avoid prison. Others think this notion is naive. Some observe that they are devoted to their criminal lifestyle and want to keep doing what they do.

sunray's wench said...

Starting the rehabilitation process as soon as the inmate enters prison would go a long way to improving the system and especially the parole conditions the BPP set. Many inmates in TDCJ are excluded from participating in some rehab programmes because they are not within 2 years of the end of their sentence. How does that help someone sentenced to 20 years, and eligible for parole at 10 years, if the programmes they need are not available to them until they have served 18 years?

Anonymous said...

Judges think they know what a defendant needs regarding rehabilitation. As do prosecutors. And, so often, the almighty plea agreement is what decides what type of treatment a defendant receives. This is the ludicrous part of sentencing in Texas. So often, the professionals who are trained in how to treat substance abuse (LCDC, Probation Officer, etc.) don't begin to work with the defendant until after the plea agreement has been reached and rubber-stamped by the Judge (moving the docket along). The sooner a defendant is assessed by the proper personnel, and the sooner they enter treatment, and the longer they stay in treatment, the better the success. Way too much focus is put on "exposure" from the viewpoint of a defense attorney and "how long" will a defendant have to do this from the viewpoint of the prosecutor. Those with treatment needs have individualized needs, not courtroom handshake plea agreement needs. Let the appropriate professionals determine what the treatment needs are. Doubtful that will ever happen though, it will require too much ego deflation from the defense counsel, the prosecutor, and the "fact finder"; and there is too much to lose if the appropriate personnel speak loudly to those making the decisions.

Pirate Rothbard said...

Its my understanding the literature on cost effectiveness of rehabilitation is very poor.

Prisons CAN rehabilitate. If by rehabilitate you mean drop recidivism by a tiny amount. But is it worth it?

Me personally, tt all depends on the situation. If you push rehabilitation as part of a strategy to calm the nerves of the citizens while you close down more expensive prisons I'm all for it.

But if you're adding it to a layer of other expenses I'm against it.

Anonymous said...

Should rehabilitation goals be considered in sentencing someone to prison?

Too bad rehabilitation is not a personal goal for most prisoners. Others must try to rehabilitate those who resist these efforts.

sunray's wench said...

anon 10.25 ~ the same applies in reverse: too bad the state of Texas values rehabilitation so little, when many inmates DO want to better themselves and then have to find the limited ways in which it can be achieved without access to any treatment or programmes.

don3330 said...

Probation officers are trained to treat+8 substance abuse disorders? Why did I spend all that time and work and money getting a license? Damn!

Anonymous said...

The old saying, "you can lead a horse easier than you can drag one.." may apply here.

Prosecutors are quick to think punishing is a better motivator than incentives.

If a substance abuse offender successfully completes a rehabilitation program reduce some of or all of the terms of the probation or punishment sentence.

Texas needs to continue to make a hard-line distinction between incarceration and rehabilitation. Rehabiliation in jail or prison is a far cry different from rehabilitation while under community supervision.

If incarceration and rehabilitation become synonymous we will have low, medium, and high risk offenders being sentenced to jail or prison to "be rehabilitated" without trying cheaper alternatives first.

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