On June 16, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Tapia v. United States, No. 10-5400, holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a), which instructs courts to "recogniz[e] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation," prohibits judges at sentencing from imposing or lengthening a term of imprisonment to promote the defendant's need for rehabilitation.
Alejandra Tapia was convicted of smuggling unauthorized persons into the United States in violation of immigration laws. The offense carried a mandatory minimum of 36 months of imprisonment. After observing that the Sentencing Guidelines recommended a prison term ranging from 41 to 51 months, the District Court imposed a 51-month sentence. The court seemed to emphasize that Tapia's sentence should be "sufficient to provide needed correctional treatment" and that she should be incarcerated "long enough" to qualify for the Bureau of Prison's Residential Drug Abuse Program, also known as the 500 Hour Drug Program.
Tapia argued on appeal that the District Court violated § 3582(a) by lengthening her term of imprisonment so that she could qualify for the 500 Hour Drug Program. Relying on circuit precedent, United States v. Duran, 37 F.3d 557 (9th Cir. 1994), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Tapia's interpretation, holding that the statute only prohibits sentencing courts from considering the defendant's need for rehabilitation when deciding whether to impose incarceration, not the length of incarceration. Once the court decides that incarceration is appropriate, it may properly consider rehabilitation in setting the prison term.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that § 3582(a) does not distinguish between the decision to impose incarceration in the first instance and the length of incarceration. By its plain terms, § 3582(a) precludes "sentencing courts from imposing or lengthening a prison term to promote an offender's rehabilitation." The Court noted that its textual interpretation is supported by the statute's context within the entire federal sentencing scheme. Section 994(k), for example, prohibits the Sentencing Commission from recommending a "term of imprisonment" as a way of promoting rehabilitation. The Court also found persuasive that federal courts can only recommend that the Bureau of Prisons place the defendant in particular treatment programs. The incapacity to order treatment, according to the Court, "indicates that Congress did not intend that courts consider offenders' rehabilitative needs when imposing prison sentences." The Court was careful, however, to note that district courts remain free to discuss opportunities for rehabilitation and recommend rehabilitation during sentencing.
Justice Kagan delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined.