Prison is for Punishment, Not Rehabilitation?

By William Peacock, Esq. on October 31, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Is prison about punishment or rehabilitation? Under Tapia v. United States, a defendant's rehabilitative needs should not be considered when imposing a sentence. It seems then, that the Supreme Court's view of the purpose of a prison is to punish.

The question before the Fourth Circuit here, is whether a person's rehabilitative needs can be considered in determining an appropriate sentence for revocation of parole. James Bernard Bennett, Jr. kindly volunteered to be the test case by using cocaine, robbing someone, and being caught with a firearm while on parole.

In 2006, Bennett was sentenced to fifty months of imprisonment and thirty-six months of supervised release. After skipping out of a halfway house, he received an additional sentence that ran concurrent with his existing sentence.

He started supervised release on July 28, 2009. His probation officer filed for revocation on October 1, 2009, after Bennett was arrested and charged in September for robbery with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm by a felon. He later pled guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery. He also tested positive for cocaine three times in September 2009.

At his revocation hearing in April 2011, he admitted the underlying conduct. His attorney requested eighteen months on each revoked charge (felon in possession of a firearm and escape) to run concurrently.

The district court felt differently. They sentenced him to twenty-four months on each revocation, to run consecutively for a total of forty-eight months. In imposing the lengthy sentence, the court initially cited the breach of trust associated with violating one's supervised release. The judge then stated that he would impose a sentence long enough for him to obtain substance abuse treatment.


Tapia's holding cited the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which states, "imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation." In short, according to both Congress and SCOTUS, prison is useless for rehabilitation. Our official incarceration policy is to punish behavior, not to correct it.

The Fourth Circuit's opinion boils down to the fact that imprisonment is imprisonment. If rehabilitative needs can't be considered when determining an appropriate sentence of "imprisonment" on their initial bid, then the same logic would apply when they are later required to serve time "in prison" on a revocation. The court also took extra pains to highlight the following:

  • Sentences can still be revoked for drug use; the revocation statute actually requires imprisonment for three failed drug tests within a year;
  • The judge can still recommend drug treatment to the defendant and the Bureau of Prison;

As for Mr. Bennett, though his case clarified the law, he won't get a break on his sentence. He failed to object with specificity to the consideration of his rehab needs. Also, from the transcript of the hearing, it seems that the rehab was only a minor consideration in comparison with the "breach of trust" logic behind the sentence.

His sentence, therefore, was affirmed.

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