Supreme Court: Can a federal sentence be raised for drug therapy?

When a 31-year-old California woman was convicted on federal charges of attempted smuggling of immigrants and drug possession, the federal sentencing guidelines recommended a sentence of between 36 and 51 months. Although there were mitigating factors, the judge sentenced her to the maximum term — because that would give her enough time in prison to complete a drug treatment program.

The federal courts are split on the question of whether U.S. sentencing policy allows judges to increase a defendant’s sentence merely to offer treatment for drug addiction. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a federal judge had the right to sentence this woman to an additional 15 months in prison — for her own good.

Obama administration declined to defend the sentence, conceding the Fair Sentencing Act prohibits sentencing criminal defendants to extra time for drug treatment

When the original Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 1984, Congress said that “imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” The Act set up the federal sentencing guidelines in order to require judges to set federal sentences based on specific factors related to the crime.

Attorney Reuben Cahn of the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., represented the woman in her federal appeal. When Congress prohibited sentences for rehabilitation, he told the Justices, it was seeking “to end the practice of sending defendants to prison for treatment.”

The Obama administration agreed, and declined to defend the sentencing enhancement. Because the Justice Department would not defend the sentence, the Court asked University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephanos Bibas to argue on behalf of the enhanced sentence.

While a federal judge could not go so far as to add five years to a sentence in order to promote drug rehabilitation, he argued, the Federal Sentencing Act should allow judges a certain amount of leeway. The woman’s sentence was, he pointed out, within the range recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines.

The Justices themselves seemed split on the question. Justice Scalia said that the words of the law clearly prohibit judges from adding to a federal criminal sentence merely for rehabilitation. Justices Sotomayor and Kennedy, on the other hand, asked questions indicating they thought the federal sentencing guidelines could be used for the purpose of deterring future crimes by providing rehabilitation.

“Those are not mutually exclusive. You can have imprisonment and rehabilitation at the same time,” said Kennedy.

The California woman turned down the drug treatment program recommended by the judge. She awaits the Supreme Court’s decision in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Justices hear case on boosting criminals’ sentences,” David G. Savage, April 19, 2011