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?