Friday, October 28, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies the Purpose of Prison

A federal judge gives a man a 51-month sentence for smuggling illegal aliens into the United States. The judge makes the sentence that long so that the man will qualify for a residential drug treatment program.

This is not permissible, the U.S. Supreme Court decided last June in Tapia v. United States. Writing for the Court, Justice Elena Kagan pointed to the text of the sentencing guidelines legislation passed by Congress in 1984.

The legislation specifically directs courts to “recognize[e] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” (18 U.S.C. 3582(a))

I have not really digested this opinion yet. But I will ask one question. Is it any wonder, with this view of imprisonment, that the recidivism rate for released inmates is so high?

To be sure, the large majority of prisoners are in state systems, not the federal system. Less than fifteen percent of prisoners are in the federal system. Indeed, two state systems - Texas and California - each rival the entire federal system in size.

In addition, in the state systems themselves, many states have rejected the structured sentencing guidelines system that prevails in the federal system. This was due, in part, precisely because of the perceived rigidity of the federal guidelines.

Nonetheless, U.S. Supreme Court decisions are always important, not only for the law they establish but for the tone they set. In Tapia, the Court's decision speaks volumes about America's preference for punishment over rehabilitation in establishing sentencing goals.

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