Sentencing Judge May Not Lengthen Prison Term in Order to Promote Rehabilitation

Earlier today, the United State Supreme Court ruled that federal judges may not impose or lengthen a defendant’s sentence in order to promote rehabilitation.  In Tapia v. United States (No. 10-5400), the district judge apparently selected a sentence at the very top of the recommended guidelines range in order to give Tapia time to complete the Bureau of Prison’s Residential Drug Abuse Program (a/k/a the 500 Hour Drug Program).  The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning as a straightforward matter of statutory interpretation; 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a) intructs sentencing judges to “recogniz[e] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”

The Court’s decision seems pretty clearly correct as a matter of law, but what about policy — should Congress repeal that language from § 3582(a)?  Part of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, this language reflected two criticisms of the rehabilitative paradigm in criminal law: (1) the pragmatic objection that prison-based rehabilitative programming did not work, and (2) the ethical objection that defendants should not be sentenced in excess of their just deserts in order to achieve the coerced delivery of social services.  The first objection has less force today than it did in the 1980’s, as good studies now document at least modest levels of success by some prison-based programs in reducing recidivism.  However, the second objection remains no less important today than it was three decades ago.  On the other hand, desert is hardly a precise concept in practice; there may be enough play in the joints to permit some consideration of rehabilitative programming at sentencing without exceeding desert-based constraints.  If so, § 3582(a) may be more limiting than is necessary.