WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday federal law does not permit a judge to lengthen a prison term to foster a defendant's rehabilitation.
Allejandra Tapia was convicted of smuggling illegal aliens into the United States. A federal judge sentenced her to 51 months, reasoning that Tapia should serve that long to qualify for and complete the Bureau of Prisons' Residential Drug Abuse Program, court records say.
Tapia argued on appeal that lengthening her prison term to make her eligible for RDAP violated federal law, which instructs sentencing courts "that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in San Francisco, ruled under its precedent, a sentencing court cannot impose a prison term to assist a defendant's rehabilitation, but once imprisonment is chosen, the court may consider the defendant's rehabilitation needs in setting the sentence's length.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, reversed, saying: "For nearly a century, the federal government used an indeterminate sentencing system premised on faith in rehabilitation. ... Because that system produced 'serious disparities in sentences' imposed on similarly situated defendants ... and failed to 'achieve rehabilitation' ... Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, replacing the system with one in which sentencing guidelines would provide courts with 'a range of determinate sentences.'"
The sentencing transcript "suggests that Tapia's sentence may have been lengthened in light of her rehabilitative needs. A court does not err by discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison or the benefits of specific treatment or training programs," the Supreme Court said. "But the record indicates that the (judge) may have increased the length of Tapia's sentence to ensure her completion of RDAP, something a court may not do."