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Is “Rehabilitation” A Factor In Deciding A Federal Prison Sentence?


Although historically the federal government looked at prison as a way to “rehabilitate” individuals convicted of criminal activity, since the 1980s, legislative policy has moved away from that objective. In fact, when Congress created the federal sentencing guidelines in the mid-1980s, one of the stated objectives was to “recognize that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”

11th Circuit Orders New Sentencing Hearing in Firearms Case

In practical terms, this means that when someone is sentenced for a federal crime, the judge is not supposed to consider a defendant’s need for rehabilitation as a factor in crafting a sentence. And if a judge does cite rehabilitation, the defendant is entitled to a new sentencing hearing that correctly applies the federal guidelines.

Take this recent unpublished decision from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, United States v. Luper. In this case, the defendant pleaded guilty to the federal offense of “being a felon in possession of a firearm.” The trial court subsequently sentenced the defendant to three years in prison. In determining this sentence, the judge cited concern about the defendant’s drug addiction and how that could lead him to harming other people in his job as a semi-truck driver. As such, the judge believed a three-year sentence would help the defendant “stay off drugs.”

Although the defendant did not object to the sentence before the trial court, he later appealed. Normally, a federal appeals court will not consider an objection unless it was raised before the trial judge. But there is an exception for “plain error,” i.e., cases where the trial court made a clear mistake of law that substantially affected a defendant’s rights.

The 11th Circuit agreed with the defendant this was a case of plain error. Under binding U.S. Supreme Court precedent, a judge cannot impose or lengthen a prison term “in order to promote a criminal defendant’s rehabilitation.” As noted above, rehabilitation may not even be a “consideration” when imposing sentences. Yet here, the 11th Circuit said the trial court clearly considered the defendant’s “need for rehabilitation” as a factor in sentencing.

More to the point, it was the primary factor considered by the sentencing court. This meant the plain error did substantially affect the defendant’s rights. As such, the defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

Contact Orlando Criminal Defense Attorney Jose Baez Today

Federal criminal sentencing is a complex process. The sentencing guidelines use a number of factors to determine an initial “range” of possible sentences. Even then, a judge can decide to depart upward or downward from this range based on certain aggravating or mitigating factors.

If you are facing criminal charges, it is therefore essential to work with a qualified Orlando federal crime lawyer who will aggressively represent your interests at trial–and if necessary at sentencing. Just because you are found guilty of a crime, that is still no excuse for prosecutors or judges not to follow the law when it comes to deciding your punishment. So if you need legal representation in connection with any federal criminal matter, contact the Baez Law Firm today.


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