Federal judges cannot use a greater likelihood of rehabilitation to justify a longer prison sentence for a criminal defendant, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled today. The court recognized a split among circuit courts on the issue.
The defendant, whose name is sealed in the court records because he was cooperating with the government at one point, was sentenced to 11 years in prison after pleading guilty to distributing 2.1 grams of heroin. In the appellate court records, the defendant is identified as a 56-year-old drug addict with a lengthy criminal record.
At sentencing, U.S. District Judge John Bates said: “I do think that the defendant may benefit from some of the programs and educational training and the medical treatment that is available in the federal prison system, and that would actually be more available and more useful for the defendant over a somewhat longer period of time than it would over a very short period of time.”
The 8th and 9th circuits have both determined that district judges can sentence a defendant to a longer prison sentence to promote rehabilitation. The 2nd and 3rd circuits say judges cannot increase a prison sentence for rehabilitative reasons. In a 2-1 ruling today, the D.C. Circuit agrees with the 2nd and 3rd circuits.
Judge David Tatel, writing for the majority, said the “straightforward language” of the statute should give clear guidance. “Congress thus spoke clearly: in deciding how long to keep a defendant in prison, sentencing courts may not use imprisonment as a means of rehabilitation.”
The “defendant has shown a reasonable likelihood that his sentence would have been shorter had the district court properly viewed imprisonment as inappropriate for promoting rehabilitation,” according to the appeals court majority.
“We cannot say that keeping a defendant in prison longer for improper reasons would leave the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings unscathed,” Tatel wrote.
Tatel noted that the appeals court is not telling the district court that it must impose a shorter sentence—just one based on permissible factors. Court-appointed D.C. solo practitioner Jonathan Zucker argued for the defendant. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Coleman argued for the government.
Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson wrote in dissent, saying that she would affirm the prison sentence. Henderson said Bates did not in fact sentence the defendant to a longer term in prison for rehabilitative reasons. Bates only “mentioned rehabilitation briefly” at the close of a longer discussion on other factors—including the defendant’s lengthy criminal record.