The United States Supreme Court heard a case on Monday that will decide whether federal judges can sentence prisoners for a longer amount of time for rehabilitation. The Court’s decision will impact over 80,000 federal criminals who are sentenced every year and those who seek criminal defense. The case made it to the Supreme Court because lower federal court judges are split as to whether rehabilitation time can be considered in a convicted criminal’s sentence.
The facts of the criminal case that took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court revisit the history of prisoner sentencing in the United States. The defendant in the case is a woman who was arrested in California in 2008 for attempted smuggling of immigrants. Following the arrest the woman did not appear for her court hearing and was consequently arrested again. At the time of the second arrest police found methamphetamine in her house.
The woman was convicted on immigrant smuggling and drug counts and during her sentencing her attorney asked for leniency because she had been sexually abused as a child. Under current federal sentencing laws federal judges do not the ability to sentence convicted criminals to very long or very short prison terms. The federal judge who initially heard the case sentenced the woman to a maximum sentence of 51 months explaining the woman’s need for drug treatment and her need to make a recovery. The minimum sentence was three years for the offenses.
In 1984 Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act, which said that “imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” As a result judges were forced to sentence convicted criminals based solely on the components of the crime committed and parole was no longer an option. Prior to the Sentencing Reform Act judges had the ability to craft sentences unique to prisoners and prisoners could go through rehabilitation and be released on parole.
The woman’s sentence was appealed by a public defender who argued the Sentencing Reform Act prohibited sentences for rehabilitation and the woman’s long sentence was in violation of the law. At the moment, the Supreme Court Justices are also split on the issue.
Source: The Los Angeles Times, “Justices hear case on boosting criminals’ sentences,” David G. Savage, 4/19/11