In 1984, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act, as part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. The Act, among other things, abolished federal parole in all but a few instances and created the United States Sentencing Commission. It also required courts to consider the factors outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)—which include the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the defendant, the justification for the sentence, the kinds of available sentences, any relevant policies promulgated by the Sentencing Commission, the need for consistency, and the value of any potential restitution to victims.
However, §3582 of the Act went one step further. In a nod to concerns about excessive prison sentences imposed during the height of the War on Drugs, it provided that the above factors should be considered while also “recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” In Tapia v. United States (2011), the Supreme Court interpreted that provision of the Act to mean that “the Sentencing Reform Act precludes federal courts from imposing or lengthening a prison term in order to promote a criminal defendant’s rehabilitation.”
What is the standard for determining when a sentencing court violates Tapia? When a court considers rehabilitation in imposing a sentence at all, does it violate Tapia? Or is Tapia only violated when a sentencing court uses rehabilitation as the determining factor?
As it turns out, every Circuit in the country—save for the D.C. Circuit—has taken a position on this issue. They’re divided into two camps.
The Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits apply an easy-to-satisfy standard: they hold that Tapia is violated when the sentencing judge even considers rehabilitation or bases his sentence even in part on rehabilitation. As articulated by the Tenth Circuit in United States v. Thornton (2017), for example, “A rule requiring reversal only when rehabilitation is the sole motivation would not make sense. The federal sentencing statute mandates that judges consider other factors. . . . Therefore, there will almost always be some valid reasons advanced by the district court for imposing the sentence issued.” The Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Vandergrift (2014) arrived at the same conclusion, and based its analysis on an interpretation “faithful to Tapia’s reasoning.” It noted that the Supreme Court held that sentencing courts “‘should consider the specified rationales of punishment except for rehabilitation’” when “determining whether to impose or lengthen a sentence of imprisonment.” Accordingly, any consideration of rehabilitation is improper.
The First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits come out differently. For a sentencing court to run afoul of Tapia, they require a demonstration that rehabilitation was the determining factor in the sentencing court’s decision to impose or enhance a sentence in order to find a Tapia violation. They, too, base their rationale in the Supreme Court’s language in Tapia. For example, in United States v. Garza (2018), the Fifth Circuit noted:
in Tapia the Court made clear that “[a] court commits no error by discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison or the benefits of specific treatment or training programs.” A district court also may legitimately “urge the [Bureau of Prisons] to place an offender in a prison treatment program.” However, when the district court’s concern for rehabilitative needs goes further—when the sentencing record discloses “that the court may have calculated the length of [the defendant’s] sentence to ensure that she receive certain rehabilitative services”—§ 3582(a) has been violated.
Similarly, in United States v. Bennett (2012), the Fourth Circuit focused on looking at the specific error that the Supreme Court was attempting to remedy in Tapia. To glean the Supreme Court’s meaning, it looked at the sentencing court’s proceedings in Tapia and observed that the district court judge said that the “‘number one’ consideration ‘[was] the need to provide treatment.’” It observed that the Tapia decision was a “close question . . . whether the rehabilitation rationale drove the sentencing decision,” despite the sentencing court’s brazen discussion of rehabilitation. Accordingly, the Court couldn’t possibly mean that a district court judge’s mere discussion of rehabilitation ran afoul of Tapia.
The Third Circuit, which arrived at a conclusion on the proper interpretation of Tapia only ten days ago, articulated a related—but distinct—rationale. It noted in United States v. Schonewolf (2018) that that the first approach, taken by the Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits, would “risk a chilling effect on district courts ‘discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison,’ a subject that ‘a court properly may address.’”
Given that virtually every Circuit in the country has arrived at a conclusion on the meaning of Tapia—and that those meanings differ and are supported by different rationales—the Supreme Court has a strong incentive to take an appeal from one of these cases to resolve the split. Even more persuasively, the Sentencing Reform Act was intended to promote consistency in sentencing across the country. It’s a cruel twist of irony for the drafters of the Act that it, in turned, spurred even more inconsistency.