Supreme Court Says Jail Not For Drug Rehab

Law school teaches that incarceration and limitations on personal liberty serve multiple purposes in society.

The purpose of any particular period of incarceration can be different for the various actors involved in the criminal case — judge, jury, prosecutors, victims and society at large. The purposes include retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation.

The goals of incarceration in the U.S. have changed over the course of our history, and throughout various state and local jurisdictions. Although more than one goal can attach to any one particular incarceration, the goals of rehabilitation and retribution usually do coincide.

Incarceration goals can also depend largely on the type of crime a person has committed. For crimes with identifiable victims, such as murder, rape or robbery, the goal of retribution is often a primary motivation. For crimes involving drug possession, however, retribution becomes nonsensical. But rehabilitation is a goal most people who understand drug addiction can agree on. What remains to be seen is whether jail or prison is an appropriate venue for drug rehabilitation.

Extra time for treatment

Over 80,000 people are convicted of crimes in federal court yearly. It has been common practice for federal judges across the U.S. to sentence prisoners to extra time behind bars in order to participate in drug treatment. The problem is that most defendants do not accept the extra sentence willingly, even though the judge is imposing the additional time for their “own good.”

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that federal judges cannot sentence criminals to longer prison terms so that they can participate in drug rehab. In other words, drug rehab is now simply a benefit of being behind bars, and no longer a primary motivator. With this ruling, the court has also made the idea of rehabilitation, in general, a less desirable justification for incarceration.

The issue came before the Court on behalf of a defendant in San Diego who was sentenced by a federal judge to more time in jail so that she could complete the corrections department’s drug rehab program. The defendant was arrested near the San Diego — Mexico border and charged with attempting to smuggle illegal aliens across the border. When she then failed to attend a court hearing on the charges, police showed up at her home and found illegal drugs.

No longer an option

In finding for the defendant, the Supreme Court declared that the federal sentencing act forbids judges from using prison for correction or rehabilitation purposes.

In this defendant’s case, the maximum sentence that could have been imposed for both the alien smuggling and the methamphetamine possession was thirty-six months. However, the judge decided to extend the sentence to over forty-eight months so that she could enroll in and complete a 500-hour drug rehab program that had a long waiting list.

In defending the judge’s sentence, the prosecution reminded the justices that a sentencing judge could consider the need for educational or vocational training, medical care or other medical treatment. However, use of these justifications for enhanced sentences are usually not successful, given that a decision as to when someone has been sufficiently rehabilitated is too subjective for corrections officers to make when considering release dates.

Now that the Supreme Court has eliminated rehabilitation as a justification for incarceration, society is left with deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution as the only reasons to take away someone’s freedom. The need to complete drug rehab can no longer factor into a judge’s decision to impose a particular sentence.

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