Tapia v. United States (10-5400)

Oral argument: Apr. 18, 2011

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Apr. 16, 2010)

SENTENCING, REHABILITATION, IMPRISONMENT, FEDERAL SENTENCING GUIDELINES

Alejandra Tapia was convicted of smuggling illegal aliens and sentenced to fifty-one months in prison. At her sentencing, the district court factored in her history of substance abuse in its decision to give her a sentence beyond the minimum term so that she could enter and complete an in-custody drug rehabilitation program. Tapia appealed her sentence to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the district court's decision. Citing a circuit split, Tapia appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to determine whether it was proper for the district court judge to cite Tapia's rehabilitative needs in ordering a longer prison sentence. Petitioner Tapia contends that the plain meaning of the Sentencing Reform Act and the legislative history behind this Act confirm that rehabilitation is an inappropriate consideration in prison sentencing. The United States agrees with Tapia and urges vacating the lower court decision. Writing as amicus curiae by invitation of the Supreme Court, Professor Stephanos Bibas asserts that under the Sentencing Reform Act, district courts may properly consider the rehabilitative potential of in-prison targeted treatment programs when determining a prison sentence. Ultimately, this decision will impact when a district court may use incarceration to punish defendants and may also affect particular groups of defendants sentenced to incarceration.

Question presented

May a district court give a defendant a longer prison sentence to promote rehabilitation, as the Eighth and Ninth Circuits have held, or is such a factor prohibited, as the Second, Third, Eleventh, and D.C. Circuits have held?

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Issue

May a judge imprison a defendant, or sentence a defendant to a longer prison term, in order for the defendant to participate in a rehabilitation program?

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Facts

Alejandra Tapia was arrested while crossing into California from Mexico after a border officer found her smuggling two illegal aliens in her vehicle’s modified gas tank. See Brief for Petitioner, Alejandra Tapia at 2; Brief of United States Supporting Vacatur at 4–5. She was indicted by a grand jury and released on bond pending further proceedings. See Brief for Petitioner at 2–3. After failing to appear in court, a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. See id. at 3. Tapia was found six months later in possession of drug paraphernalia, a sawed-off shotgun, and stolen mail with which she admitted her intent to commit identity theft. See Brief of United States at 5.

At trial in the District Court for the Southern District of California, a jury convicted Tapia of bringing an illegal alien into the United States for financial gain and without presentation, of aiding and abetting that illegal alien, and of bail jumping. See United States v. Tapia, 376 F. Appx. 707 (9th Cir. 2010). The district court sentenced her to fifty-one months in prison and three years of supervised release. See id.; see Brief of United States at 2, 6. The fifty-one month term was the longest length suggested by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. See Brief of United States at 6; see Brief for Petitioner at 3.

In sentencing Tapia under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the district court considered a variety of factors including her substance-abuse history, her previous convictions, her status as a fugitive, and her long history as a victim of physical and sexual abuse. See Brief of United States at 6–7; Brief for Petitioner at 4–5. The court ultimately determined that Tapia needed to participate in a 500-hour Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) offered by the Bureau of Prisons. See Brief for Petitioner at 4–6. It sentenced her to a term of imprisonment that was sufficient to permit her to complete the RDAP program. See Brief of United States at 7. Tapia was never, however, admitted into the RDAP program. See Brief for Petitioner at 6–7, 43.

Tapia appealed her sentence to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that the district court gave her a longer sentence based on its speculation about when she could enter and complete the RDAP program. See Tapia, 376 Fed. Appx. at 707. The Ninth Circuit affirmed her sentence in a memorandum decision. See id. Citing a circuit split, Tapia appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to consider whether a district court may properly consider rehabilitation in determining sentence length. See Tapia v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 817 (2010).

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Discussion

Petitioner Alejandra Tapia received a fifty-one month sentence and was instructed to participate in a 500-hour Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) offered by the Bureau of Prisons during her incarceration. See United States v. Tapia, 376 Fed. Appx. 707 (9th Cir. 2010). On appeal to the Supreme Court, Tapia argues that the district court gave her the longest sentence suggested by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines based on improper rehabilitation concerns about the timing of her entry and completion of RDAP. See Brief for Petitioner, Alejandra Tapia at 33–35. The United States agreed with Tapia, asking the Supreme Court to vacate the Ninth Circuit’s decision affirming Tapia’s sentence so that Tapia may attempt to demonstrate a case of plain error in her sentencing. See Brief of United States Supporting Vacatur at 43.

Because there is no Respondent in this case, the Supreme Court asked Professor Stephanos Bibas to brief and argue the position that a district court may consider an individual’s need for rehabilitation in determining the length of that individual’s imprisonment. See Brief of Amicus Curiae by Invitation of the Court (“Amicus by Invitation”) at 1. Bibas argues that a district court may consider rehabilitation in a “targeted treatment program” to set the length of a term of incarceration. See id. at 21–25.

Purpose of Imprisonment

Tapia argues that congressional sentencing reforms make it clear that the primary purpose of imprisonment is not rehabilitation, but rather deterrence, incapacitation, and punishment. See Brief for Petitioner at 46–47, 53. Imprisonment itself does not rehabilitate, Tapia asserts. See id. at 47–48, 51. Thus, she argues, where rehabilitation is the goal, only probation or supervised release is truly effective. See id. at 51, 53–55; see also Brief of United States at 24–26. Accordingly, Tapia implies that to extend a sentence due to rehabilitation concerns does not further the primary purposes of imprisonment. See Brief for Petitioner at 53–57. Similarly, the United States asserts that a district court may not keep a defendant incarcerated for a longer term precisely because that program does not further the deterrence, incapacitation, and punishment goals of imprisonment and that could delay the rehabilitative goals of probation. See Brief of United States at 26–30.

Bibas agrees that Congress has clearly repudiated the rehabilitative model of imprisonment, but argues that providing educational or vocational training and other correctional treatment is a crucial purpose of imprisonment. See Brief of Amicus by Invitation at 25–26, 35–36. While rehabilitation should not be the primary consideration in determining a sentence, Bibas argues that entry into a “targeted treatment program” while incarcerated is a valid consideration at sentencing. See id. at 28–29, 32–34. Such programs, Bibas asserts, are highly beneficial for defendants struggling with drug addiction, and thus are in accord with the purposes of imprisonment. See id. at 30–31, 39–40.

Affects of Considering Rehabilitation in Sentencing

Tapia argues that using rehabilitation concerns to determine sentence length leads to the “needless incarceration of the poor and disadvantaged.” See Brief for Petitioner at 48. She claims that defendants most in need of rehabilitative services are more likely to be poor, uneducated, in need of vocational training, or perhaps even mentally ill; it is the “poor and disadvantaged” defendants who would most likely receive longer sentences if a court considers rehabilitation. See id. at 49–50, 56–57. Tapia asserts that if a defendant is in need of rehabilitation due to “particular offender characteristics,” including drug dependence, then the district court should consider alternate sentences (such as probation, intermittent confinement, or community service) rather than a longer prison term. See id. at 55–57. Moreover, Tapia argues, no district court judge can guarantee that a particular defendant will be permitted to enter an in-custody rehabilitation program like RDAP—just as she was not. See id. at 6–7, 37, 43–45. As a result, Tapia asserts, all that longer sentences can guarantee is that otherwise disadvantaged defendants will be incarcerated longer than other defendants. See id. at 48–50, 59.

Bibas, in contrast, implies that what is important is not who might be sentenced to a longer term if rehabilitation is considered, but rather whether those defendants who most need help, like Tapia, have an opportunity to get treatment while incarcerated. See Brief of Amicus by Invitation at 30, 39–41. Some defendants, Bibas asserts, actually request longer sentences to be part of programs like RDAP. See id. at 41. Moreover, even though no district court can guarantee that a defendant it sentences to incarceration will be placed in a particular rehabilitation program, this lack of a guarantee is no different from that inherent in any sentence; there is no guarantee that imprisonment will deter crime. See id. at 42–43. Accordingly, Bibas asserts that by considering rehabilitation needs in determining sentences, all inmates have the same opportunity to get whatever help they need. See id. at 39–41.

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Analysis

In 1984, Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act (“SRA”) to provide federal judges with a comprehensive criminal sentencing law. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 3351 et seq. Section 353(a) lists four specific factors for a district court judge to consider when sentencing a criminal defendant: the seriousness of the offense, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Other sections of the SRA provide further guidance on how these factors should be considered in the different types of sentences—incarceration, supervised released, etc.—that a district court judge may impose upon a defendant. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 3562(a), 3572(a), 3582(a), 3583(c). When the district court is determining whether to imprison a defendant, or deciding the length of a prison sentence, Section 3582(a) of the SRA states that the court will consider the aforementioned factors while “recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a). Petitioner Alejandra Tapia and the United States argue that the SRA prohibits judges from considering rehabilitation when imposing a prison sentence on a criminal defendant. See Brief for Petitioner, Alejandra Tapia at 14–16; Brief of United States Supporting Vacatur at 16–19. In opposition, Professor Stephanos Bibas, writing as amicus curiae by invitation of the Supreme Court, contends that judges may consider the potential rehabilitative effects of in-prison targeted treatment programs when sentencing a defendant. See Brief of Amicus Curiae by Invitation of the Court (“Amicus by Invitation”) at 21–23.

Plain Meaning of the Sentencing Reform Act

When determining issues of statutory interpretation, a court must first determine if the statute’s language is unambiguous; if this is the case, the court must apply the statute according to its plain meaning. See Brief for Petitioner at 13–14 (citing Carcieri v. Salazar, 129 S. Ct. 1058 (2009)).

Tapia contends that Section 3582(a) is unambiguous and the plain meaning of this section requires the Supreme Court to find that a district court judge may not consider a defendant’s potential rehabilitation when imposing, or determining the length of, a prison term. See Brief for Petitioner at 14–16; Brief of United States at 16–19. Tapia argues that the last clause of the section, “recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation,” is referring to the district court’s duties of both imposing a prison sentence and determining the length of incarceration. See Brief for Petitioner at 16–18. Therefore, Tapia asserts, district court judges should approach each of these dual functions without any consideration of how the prison term may affect a defendant’s rehabilitation. See id. at 27.

The United States, citing the support of many of the circuit courts, further contends that the term “recognize,” by its definition, creates a blanket restriction, not a mere recommendation against using rehabilitation to justify imprisonment. See Brief of United States at 18–19. Additionally, Tapia states that despite the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the Section could have been clearer, that does not change the fact that its meaning is already sufficiently clear and that it should be applied in accordance with that clear meaning. See Brief for Petitioner at 20.

Bibas asserts that Section 3582(a) refers solely to “imprisonment,” or the mere act of confinement, as an inappropriate means of rehabilitation. See Brief of Amicus by Invitation at 21. Considering a treatment program when mandating or increasing a prison sentence is promoting rehabilitation through a means other than isolated confinement, which Bibas contends is permitted under the SGA. See id. at 21–22.

Contrary to the arguments of Tapia and the United States, Bibas contends that Section 3582(a) does not provide a categorical ban on the consideration of rehabilitation in this area of sentencing. See Brief of Amicus by Invitation at 25. Bibas asserts that the use of the term “recognize” evinces Congress’s intent to only remind or caution judges that unspecified terms of isolation are no longer appropriate to promote rehabilitation. See id. Bibas argues that if this section was intended to provide a categorical ban on rehabilitation concerns, Congress would have used stronger language, such as “shall assure,” which is used to impose a categorical ban in another provision of the SRA. See id. at 44.

Legislative Intent and History of the Sentencing Reform Act

Tapia argues that the plain meaning of Section 3582(a)—barring the consideration of rehabilitation in decisions regarding imprisonment—is further supported by the legislative history of the SRA. See Brief for Petitioner at 45–46. By enacting the SRA, Tapia contends, Congress was rejecting the rehabilitative model of punishment and recognizing that the incarceration of alleged offenders did not necessarily lead to their reform or rehabilitation. See id. at 47–48. While rehabilitation is still listed as one of the factors to be considered in sentencing, Tapia and the United States argue that Congress intended for a judge to utilize a form of supervised release, not imprisonment, if the rehabilitation factor was a main concern. See id. at 53–55; Brief of United States at 34.

Finally, to support their arguments both Tapia and the United States point to a key difference between a draft of the SRA and Section 3582 as it was codified. See Brief for Petitioner at 57–58; Brief of United States at 33–34. An early draft of Section 3582 contained a clause explicitly condoning imprisonment for the purpose of rehabilitation in “exceptional cases.” See Brief for Petitioner at 58; Brief of United States at 33–34. Tapia and the United States assert that the removal of this language further illustrates that Congress intended a categorical ban on considering rehabilitation when imprisoning an offender. See Brief for Petitioner at 58; Brief of United States at 33–34.

Bibas contends that the legislative history of the SRA best supports the conclusion that “targeted treatment programs” are a factor that may be considered when determining a prison term. See Brief of Amicus by Invitation at 35. In drafting the SRA, Congress refused to remove rehabilitation as one of the factors to be considered in sentencing, which Bibas argues shows that Congress intended rehabilitation to be a valid goal of prison sentencing. See id. at 35–36. While it is agreed that Congress intended the SRA to eliminate the old rehabilitative model, Bibas asserts that Congress was only abolishing the old model which focused upon indeterminate prison sentences and not a model that allowed considerations of “targeted treatment programs.” See id. at 37.

In support of this argument, Bibas also points to a key difference between a draft of the SRA and the statute as codified. See Brief of Amicus by Invitation at 38. Bibas asserts that Congress did not intend for there to be a categorical ban on considerations of rehabilitation in prison sentencing. See id. Instead, Bibas asserts that this section is meant to indicate that “imprisonment,” not “targeted treatment programs,” is an inappropriate form of rehabilitation. See id. at 38–39.

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Conclusion

This case will ultimately turn upon the statutory construction of the Sentencing Reform Act. Petitioner Alejandra Tapia and the United States both contend that the plain meaning of this Act bars district courts from considering rehabilitation when determining a prison sentence. In contrast, Professor Stephanos Bibas, writing as amicus curiae by invitation of the Court, argues that the Act does not bar judges from considering the rehabilitation potential of in-prison targeted treatment programs at sentencing. Considering rehabilitation could impact the length of sentences for particular defendants, and could also impact a judge’s decision to use incarceration when punishing defendants.

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Authors

Prepared by: Jacqueline Bendert and Rachel Sparks Bradley

Edited by: Kate Hajjar

Additional Sources

· LII: Sentencing—An Overview

· Life Sentences Blog, Michael O’Hear: SCOTUS to Decide Whether Sentencing Judge Can Base Prison Term on Time Needed for Treatment Program (Dec. 12, 2010)

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Edited by: