On May 2, 2018, the Second Circuit held in United States v. Jamaal Brooks (Parker, Lynch, Chin) (per curium) that the district court erred in imposing a sentence of lifetime supervised release on a defendant who had violated prior terms of supervised release due to continued drug use and failure to report to scheduled drug testing. The Court stressed that while the sentencing court has substantial discretion in fashioning an appropriate sentence, a term of supervised release is nonetheless substantially unreasonable if it is improperly justified by retribution and deviates significantly from the sentence given to similarly-situated violators. Supervised release imposes real burdens on both defendants and the justice system, and this decision is a reminder that, as in other aspects of federal sentencing, the punishment should fit the crime.

Background

Defendant Jamaal Brooks pleaded guilty in June 2013 to possession and distribution of cocaine and heroin. He was sentenced to thirty months’ imprisonment and three years’ supervised release. Brooks served the prison term and was released from custody in January 2015, but he was arrested soon after for possession of marijuana. By June 2016, the Probation Office reported that Brooks had violated the terms of his supervised release at least ten times for continued drug use. In October 2016, Brooks pleaded guilty to multiple violations of the terms of release: using marijuana or cocaine on fifteen occasions and failing to report to scheduled drug testing on six occasions.

In November 2016, the district court resentenced Brooks to twelve months’ imprisonment and a life term of supervised release. The court acknowledged that Brooks’ drug addiction was “beyond [his] control,” but criticized Brooks for being “unable to muster the strength of character . . . to take advantage of the opportunities” given by the court and the Government, despite being given “chance after chance after chance.” The district court reasoned that lifetime supervised release was also necessary to give Brooks access to treatment “for as long as it is useful.”

The Court’s Decision

Brooks challenged the life term of supervised release as substantively and procedurally unreasonable. The Second Circuit explained that “[d]istrict judges are given considerable discretion in fashioning the proper sentence for criminal defendants,” and, based on Brooks’ offense level, a lifetime term was authorized under the governing statute. But several considerations cabin the district court’s discretion to impose that sentence. First, supervised release can only be imposed to serve rehabilitative—not punitive—ends. Second, the district court must weigh the nature and circumstances of the offense, the characteristics of the defendant, the need to provide the defendant with appropriate treatment and medical care, and the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendant with similar records.

Applying this standard, the Court concluded that a life term of supervised release here was unreasonable. The Court observed that a “lifetime of supervised release is an extreme and unusual remedy,” citing to a statistic that a life term of supervised release was imposed on less than one percent of federal defendants in recent years. By its nature, lifetime supervised release is, “to some degree, at odds with the rehabilitative purpose of supervised release,” because it implies that “supervision will never end” and “the defendant is essentially incorrigible.” For those reasons, life terms are imposed overwhelmingly in cases involving child sex offenses or serious violent crimes.

Brooks’ non-violent drug offenses paled in comparison. Brooks’ conduct, the Court wrote, “is not distinguishable from that of many other recidivist defendants in his position struggling with drug addiction.” The Court observed the regrettable reality that cases of recidivism due to drug addiction are “legion,” yet “offenders with repeated drug violations or other recidivism problems are sentenced to far shorter terms of supervised release.” The Court also held that the district court’s reliance on Brooks’ failure to take advantage of the multiple opportunities he had received was an improper retributive rationale. The Court vacated the life term of supervised release, and remanded to the district court to resentence in accordance with the decision.

Commentary

Reversals of sentencing decisions as substantively unreasonable are exceedingly rare. But several factors likely conspired here to lead the Panel to conclude that the district court had gone too far. First, the term imposed was far longer than that given to similarly-situated non-violent offenders. The district court’s apparent and understandable frustration with this defendant, who had numerous violations, was not enough to warrant the extreme deviation. Second, the very nature of a life time term—as opposed to a lengthy term of years—is concerning in its suggestion that the defendant is irredeemable. As the Circuit indicated last year in United States v. Burden, 860 F.3d 45 (2d Cir. 2017), a life sentence raises red flags that the district court is seeking to punish, rather than rehabilitate, the defendant. Third, this decision serves as an example of increased judicial recognition that drug addiction is a medical condition—not a moral failing—and accordingly is an issue that the criminal justice system often is ill-suited to remedying. We are not in any position to assess the defendant’s strength of character, but society’s experience has shown that even people of good character have succumbed to drug addiction despite their best efforts to rehabilitate themselves.