The U.S. Supreme Court has made some very important decisions during this year’s session. Some of these decisions directly affect the life and possibilities of relief for those facing or serving time in federal prison. Here are three of the biggest ones.
Tapia v. United States
Federal law does not allow rehabilitation to be used as a factor when handing down a sentence1. Now the Supreme Court has put case law behind this. Ms.Tapia was given a lengthened sentence of incarceration for the purpose of providing sufficient sentence-length to participate in the Bureau of Prison’s Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). Successful completion of this program could shorten her sentence by up to on year if completed successfully. However, this reduction is not guaranteed.
Why is this important? Two reasons: First, the U.S. Supreme Court is on-record acknowledging that prison has no rehabilitative properties. Second, a judge cannot extend a sentence that would have normally been handed down in the interest of rehabilitation. If you were sentenced in this way, you can now appeal citing Tapia v. United States and have the excessive length removed from your sentence. Let us help you do that!
Brown v. Plata
The United States incarcerates its citizens at seven to ten times the rate of European countries2. In real-world terms, one out of every 736 people in the United States is currently behind bars.
We deem it necessary to incarcerate more of our people—in rate as well as absolute numbers—than the world’s most draconian authoritarian regimes. Think about that. Despite our “land of the free” motto, we have more prisoners than China, and they have a billion more people than we do3.
In California, overcrowding has become so sever that — as of this court decision — being incarcerated there is a violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause of the 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution! The decision in Brown v. Plata was to order California to decrease its prison population. While this decision seems obvious to many citizens who recognize how broken the prison system is, the Supreme Court wasn’t so convinced. What should have been a slam-dunk, unanimous decision ended up being a 5-4 split in favor of Plata. Some justices believe that releasing any individual before their sentence is completed puts the public at undue risk.
Respectfully, I believe that his notion is simply the result of fear-mongering by the uninformed. Releasing people from their sentences ahead of schedule will not cause the sky to fall.
Bond v. United States
Until this decision, many defendants were prevented from making legitimate claims against the court because certain parts of the Constitution were not considered to be appropriate for these individuals to use.
In Bond, the defendant inflicted a minor burn on her husband’s mistress by putting caustic substances on objects the woman was likely to touch. She was charged in federal court for violating the Chemical Weapons Treaty4. This charge is reserved for terrorists using chemical weapons and dirty bombs — not putting skin irritants on a mistress’ keyboard and mouse. Bond challenged this, citing that her charge violated the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prevents the federal government from interfering with powers reserved for States.
More can be said about this decision, but in basic terms: if the federal government can bring down charges based on major treaties and Congressional acts simply to railroad a defendant, then a defendant can bring down the full force of the Constitution to combat such insanity. The 10th amendment was formerly reserved for State’s use only in federal court (e.g., the 26-state class action lawsuit against the current “ObamaCare” bill). Now, under Bond, an individual defendant may use the 10th amendment as a defense in federal court.
While only the Tapia ruling has immediate implications on federal defendants and federal inmates, all three decisions are important in the inevitable reform of the American system of mass incarceration. How this reform will occur is anybody’s guess. However, when the federal and state government refuse to actively remedy the cruel and unusual conditions under which they incarcerate the citizens of this country, the courts can and do assert their power to provide relief and take the lead in the needed reform of laws, jurisprudence, and perceptions of the prison system.