Criminal Law - Federal Sentencing - First Circuit Holds That Rehabilitation Cannot Justify Post-Revocation Imprisonment

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CRIMINAL LAW--FEDERAL SENTENCING--FIRST CIRCUIT HOLDS THAT REHABILITATION CANNOT JUSTIFY POST-REVOCATION IMPRISONMENT.--United States v. Molignaro, 649 f.3d 1 (1st cir. 2011).

Federal sentencing law states that "imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation." (1) Although this admonition clearly applies to initial sentencing, until last year, every court of appeals to address the issue had agreed that the statute did not apply to resentencing upon revocation of a defendant's supervised release. (2) Recently, however, in United States v. Molignaro, (3) the First Circuit held that even upon revocation of supervised release, courts may not impose imprisonment with the aim of facilitating rehabilitation. (4) The court acknowledged that the other circuits' interpretation of the supervised release statute was plausible, but it chose to move beyond those circuits' relatively narrow analyses to consider the larger statutory framework. Because the other circuits' interpretation appeared to clash with that larger framework, the First Circuit sensibly rejected the accepted interpretation and instead left Congress the option of modifying the statutory scheme.

Two sections of title 18 of the U.S. Code are implicated when a court revokes a defen-dant's supervised release and sentences him to additional imprisonment: [section] 3582 ("Imposi-tion of a sentence of imprisonment") and [section] 3583 ("Inclusion of a term of supervised release after imprisonment"). Section 3582(a) instructs courts to "recogniz[e] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation." (5) On its face, the statute makes no distinction between initial and post-revocation sentencing: it simply addresses itself to any court "determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment." (6) Section 3583(e) authorizes courts to terminate, extend, modify, or revoke an offender's term of supervised release. (7) Critically, the introductory clause preceding these options says that courts may undertake these actions only after considering a variety of factors, including rehabilitation. (8)

After pleading guilty to possession of child pornography in 2005, Eric Molignaro was sentenced to twenty-four months in prison, followed by thirty-six months of supervised re-lease. (9) In 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts found that Molignaro had violated the terms of his supervised release by lying to his probation officer and by failing to complete a sex offender treatment program. (10) Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. [section] 3583(e), the district court revoked Molignaro's supervised release and resentenced him to twenty-two additional months of imprisonment, far above the three to nine months recommended by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. (11) The court explained that the longer sentence was in-tended to allow the defendant sufficient time to participate in a sex offender treatment program at the federal prison in Devens, Massachusetts. (12) Molignaro objected that imposing a prison term for the purpose of facilitating his participation in the program constituted reversible error. (13)

The First Circuit vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. (14) Writing for the panel, Justice Souter (15) began by noting that although Congress had made "the provision of 'needed ... medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner'" (16) an objective of criminal sentencing, Congress had also indicated that imprisonment--as opposed to probation or supervised release--is not an appropriate means of achieving such rehabilitative ends. (17) This prohibition on premising imprisonment on rehabilitation clearly applies to "the paradigm circumstance of the initial sentencing after a conviction," (18) Justice Souter explained, but its applicability to resentencing following revocation of supervised release is not so certain. (19)

Justice Souter next reviewed the textual arguments that had led other courts to permit consideration of rehabilitation in post-revocation resentencing, rejecting two as unpersuasive and a third as cogent but preempted by Supreme Court precedent. …