Rehabilitive Sentencing

The US Supreme Court will shortly decide whether a federal judge can lengthen a prison sentence for the purpose of giving a prisoner time to complete a prison drug rehabilitation program.  The case involves Alejandra Tapia, who was convicted of crimes involving drugs and alien smuggling.  The judge gave Tapia a longer-than-usual sentence (though still within statuory limits) in the hope that she would enroll in a prison drug rehabilitation program.  Tapia is challenging the sentence, claiming that the relevant statute, 18 USC Sec. 3582, forbids judges from considering rehabilitative programs when deciding on the length of prison sentences.

Tapia argues that Congress did not want to use prison sentences to coerce prisoners to participate in rehabilitation programs.  And in fact Tapia refused to partiicpate in a rehabilitation program.  That’s sad but hardly surprising: the same thinking that led her into prison in the first place seemingly continues to control her actions.

If the Court upholds Tapia’s challenge, perhaps the only effect will be to make sentencing judges more circumspect.  Tapia’s sentencing judge indicated that he was lengthening her sentence to give her a chance to enroll in a rehabilitation program.  Had the judge said, “I’m giving you the maximum sentence in order to protect society,” that sentence would not violate Sec. 3582.

At the end of the day, rehabilitation programs probably work best when people are willing and committed to changing their lives.  Hopefully, inmates like Alejandra Tapia will come to view a prison term as an opportunity to enroll in a rehabilitation program or participate in a program like AA or CGA (Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous).  If not, prisons will continue to be revolving doors for many people.