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Can a judge lengthen your sentence so you'll qualify for rehab?

Drug abuse is often a key factor in criminal behavior. Unfortunately, locking up drug abusers doesn't stop crime, and it doesn't stop drug addiction. Pennsylvania recognizes that fact and has set up Drug Courts throughout the state. In the federal system, drug treatment is available for many inmates through the Bureau of Prisons.

Drug treatment is generally very helpful, but the vast majority of people would prefer get it in a non-prison setting. That said, when an addict has been convicted of a crime, there are benefits to providing drug treatment in prison. When people with substance abuse issues are released without having received treatment, they are likely to relapse -- and relapse can begin a cycle that ends with the defendant in prison again.

It can be very frustrating for a judge when a defendant needs treatment but won't be in prison long enough to qualify for it. From the perspective of preventing relapse and recidivism, a defendant might be better off receiving a longer prison sentence that includes drug treatment than receiving a shorter one that does not.

A caring judge wants to maximize the defendant's chances of true rehabilitation. Can that judge intentionally lengthen the defendant's sentence in order to qualify him or her for drug treatment?

No, as one federal judge was recently reminded. In an assault case, the prosecutor asked the judge to sentence the female defendant to 33 months; the defense asked for 18 months. In light of the circumstances and substance abuse issue, however, the judge was inclined to sentence her defendant to time served.

The judge did not indulge his inclination toward mercy. Instead, he tried to manipulate her sentence so she would qualify for the Bureau of Prisons' residential drug abuse program.

On appeal, the court said that the judge's laudable intention to facilitate drug treatment did not give him the authority to lengthen the woman's sentence. In fact, in 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Tapia v. United States that "a court may not impose or lengthen a prison sentence to enable an offender to complete a treatment program or otherwise to promote rehabilitation." So, the judge's sentencing decision was overruled and the case was sent back for resentencing.

As the appeals court noted, errors like this can seriously affect the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system and its reputation among the public. If you're accused of a crime, working with a committed, vigorous criminal defense attorney can help ensure the fairness and integrity of your trial.

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