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Term of Imprisonment to Promote Rehabilitation Improper: Shaw

While courts are allowed to discuss the availability of rehabilitative programs, they cannot be the sole basis for an upward variance.

In Shaw, the Seventh Circuit held that a sentence that was in order to promote rehabilitation was improper.

Shaw's Underlying Crime and Supervised Release Troubles

Shaw pled guilty to possessing with intent to distribute cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A), and being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g). The district court sentenced Shaw to 10 years imprisonment to be followed by a six-year term of supervised release.

After completing his term of incarceration and beginning supervised release, Shaw tested positive for drugs and was arrested for driving on a revoked license. The district court ordered that Shaw be placed on 60 days home confinement and ordered him to participate in behavioral therapy.

After several repeated violations, Shaw’s probation officer petitioned the district court to revoke his supervised release. During the revocation proceedings, Shaw admitted to the charged violations. Without objection, the district court accepted probation’s calculation that the violations subjected Shaw to a statutory maximum of five years imprisonment under the Sentencing Guidelines’ policy statement. The government recommended the court impose a term of two years imprisonment, while Shaw asked for time served. In support of his request, Shaw’s attorney argued that Shaw had difficulty adjusting to life after prison, and his self-defeating behavior was evidence that Shaw needed psychological help and therapy-not more prison time. Shaw echoed his counsel’s arguments during his allocution, explaining to the district court that he needed rehabilitation and treatment.

The Court's Reasoning for the Revocation

The court recognized that Shaw might have experienced a negative adjustment from prison akin to posttraumatic stress disorder, but the court also believed Shaw had to pay for his “sins.” The court told Shaw:

“I hope you can perceive that I care for you. You’re not just a - I care for you. I’m like a parent who cares for his child, but he knows that I gotta do something hurtful if I’m gonna help this child that I love.

I’m gonna sentence you to 24 months, sir, and with your time served, it may end up somewhere between 18 or 20 months. That period of time will give you a chance, hopefully, to enjoy some - to look at the programs you’re gonna be offered in prison in a totally different light.”

In sentencing Shaw, the court made no mention of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors, nor did it provide an explanation for the length of Shaw’s prison term or why an upward variance from the advisory Guidelines range was necessary.

Shaw's Appeal

Shaw appealed the sentence to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, he argued that (1) the district court violated the rule established in Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319 (2011), by sentencing him to imprisonment for the purpose of rehabilitation; (2) the court failed to consider the relevant 3553(a) factors; and (3) the court impermissibly relied on its own religious biases when it called Shaw’s conduct a “sin.”

The Court's Reasoning:  Rehabilitation Cannot Be the Sole Basis

When considering whether to modify or revoke a term of supervised release, the district court is required to consider the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. 3583(e). But a district court’s consideration of the need to “provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment” has been limited by the Supreme Court’s decision in Tapia, which held that federal courts are prohibited from imposing or lengthening a term of imprisonment to promote an offender’s rehabilitation.

Although Tapia involved an appeal from an initial sentencing, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the same rule applies during a revocation of supervised release. The appellate court agreed with Shaw that the two-year sentence violated Tapia because the district court expressed a desire to rehabilitate Shaw as the primary force behind the sentence. The district court’s rehabilitation comments were the only comments about the length of Shaw’s prison term.

To be clear, the Seventh Circuit acknowledged that courts are free to discuss the availability of rehabilitative programs and encourage defendants to use them. However, by relying on rehabilitation as the sole basis for an upward variance, the court crossed the line from permissible comments to impermissible violations of Tapia.

Because the district court’s desire to rehabilitate Shaw was a driving force behind the court’s imposition of a 2-year sentence, the Seventh Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

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