The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. In 2010, one in forty-eight adults were on probation or parole, and one in 104 adults were in correctional custody. Once convicted, between 70%3 and 89%4 of criminal defendants are sentenced to imprisonment. Since 1986, the number of people imprisoned in the United States has grown from approximately 746,0005 to more than 2.2 million in 2010. These exceedingly high numbers show a trend of increasing imprisonment, starting in the 1980s. Frustrated by the perceived failure of the criminal justice system, the nation almost completely rejected rehabilitation as a goal of sentencing. Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which implemented determinate sentencing and excluded rehabilitative goals from a federal judge’s consideration when imposing a term of imprisonment. For a time after Congress passed the Act, the circuits split over rehabilitative factors being considered after imposing a term of imprisonment to influence the judge’s determination of an appropriate sentence length. The U.S. Supreme Court in Tapia v. United States held that considering rehabilitative factors to determine whether to impose a sentence of imprisonment or the length of that sentence was impermissible.
This Note will primarily focus on the policy implications of the Court’s decision, as well as possible future directions. In Part II, this Note will outline the history leading up to the Sentencing Reform Act and its implementation. Part II also describes the prior circuit split, while Part III depicts the Court’s holding in Tapia. Part IV of this Note argues the outcome of the circuit split resolution is beneficial and necessary because it is both the correct interpretation of the statute and provides an opportunity for rehabilitation to be redefined by evidence- based principles, not presumed as inherent to imprisonment. Finally, Part V concludes by emphasizing rehabilitation is not a hopeless aspiration for our criminal justice system if policy implementation is informed by scientific knowledge from psychological research.
Consideration of Rehabilitative Factors for Sentencing in Federal Courts: Tapia v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 2382 (2011),
92 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol92/iss2/6