Can Drug Rehabilitation Weigh in Sentencing?

Emily Westerfield, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

The courts are currently split with regard to their stances on the issue of whether a federal court may consider a criminal defendant’s need to receive rehabilitation for drug addiction when determining the duration of the defendant’s prison sentence during a hearing for the revocation of the defendant’s supervised release. In United States v. Schonewolf, this issue arose when a criminal defendant, a woman who was addicted to heroin, violated the terms of her supervised release when she pled guilty to several drug charges after relapsing.[1] While the sentencing guidelines indicated that the defendant ought to be sentenced to an additional twenty-four to thirty months in prison for the violation of her supervised release, the district court ultimately agreed with the prosecution’s argument, ruling in favor of an upward variance of forty months in prison.[2] The decision to impose an upward variance was based in part on the judge’s reasoning that the defendant’s last hope of recovering from her heroin addiction would be to “limit [her] contact with the outside world for a significant period of time.”[3] The defendant appealed her sentence on the basis that the district court violated the Sentencing Reform Act by imposing an upward variance on the sentencing guidelines as a means of furthering its goal of drug rehabilitation for the defendant.[4] Nonetheless, the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s sentence.[5]

The Sentencing Reform Act requires the courts to consider several factors when determining the duration of a criminal defendant’s prison sentence, accompanied by the recognition that “imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”[6] In Tapia v. United States, the Supreme Court held that this part of the Sentencing Reform Act effectively prohibits federal courts from determining a criminal defendant’s sentence “in order to promote the defendant’s rehabilitation.”[7] According to the Supreme Court, this interpretation aligns with the Congressional basis for the relevant portion of the Sentencing Reform Act.[8] Courts have no control over whether or not defendants engage in rehabilitative programs once they are in prison, and certainly not over whether those rehabilitative programs are successfully implemented.[9] Moreover, the Third Circuit determined in Schonewolf that the Supreme Court’s holding in Tapia applies to prison sentences determined in revocation hearings.[10] Thus, the defendant’s sentence in that case would still have to abide by the Sentencing Reform Act.

The question, then, is whether a court violates Tapia, and consequently the Sentencing Reform Act, only when the defendant’s need for rehabilitation for drug addiction is the ultimate decision-making factor in the court’s determination of the nature and length of a defendant’s prison sentence, or if a court violates the Act when it gives the defendant’s need for rehabilitation any weight at all in determining the defendant’s sentence.[11] This is precisely where the circuit courts diverge into two separate positions.[12]

The Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits have previously held that a court violates Tapia and the Sentencing Reform Act when it bases a sentence to any degree on a defendant’s need for rehabilitation.[13] Thus, a court in those circuits could contravene the rule set forth by the Supreme Court in Tapia even if the length of the sentence it imposes on a criminal defendant is not specifically aligned with a particular course of rehabilitation.[14] The Tenth Circuit justifies this approach to Tapia by alluding to the Supreme Court’s statement in Tapia that a prison sentence may not be lengthened so as to ensure a defendant would have the opportunity to complete a rehabilitation program “or otherwise to promote rehabilitation.”[15] According to the Tenth Circuit, the quoted portion encompasses situations in which a court may be influenced by a rehabilitative motivation in imposing a sentence, but does not explicitly base the length of the prison sentence on that purpose.[16]

Meanwhile, the First, Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits have held that courts may consider a criminal defendant’s need for drug rehabilitation when determining the nature and length of the defendant’s sentence, so long as the defendant’s need for rehabilitation is not the decisive factor in determining the sentence.[17] The Third Circuit joined this position in Schonewolf on the basis that the Supreme Court’s holding in Tapia impliedly preserved the ability of lower federal courts to contemplate a defendant’s opportunity to receive rehabilitative services in prison and the benefits such services may have on the defendant, and consequently on society, when deciding the length of the defendant’s prison sentence.[18] Since the Supreme Court in Tapia merely reversed the district court’s imposition of a prison sentence because the duration of the sentence was based specifically on the idea that it would allow the defendant to complete a particular rehabilitative program while serving the prison sentence, the Third Circuit concluded that the Supreme Court conserved a court’s ability to evaluate the rehabilitative effects, among other factors, of a possible sentence duration when determining whether to impose a sentence of that length.[19]

The Third Circuit definitively sided with the First, Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits by upholding the district court’s sentence and, thus, utilizing the more lenient standard for a court’s ability to weigh a defendant’s need for rehabilitation when making a sentencing determination.[20] However, the Third Circuit failed to resolve a consequential issue, namely, when the possibility of rehabilitation in prison becomes a determinative, and therefore impermissible, factor in a court’s sentencing determination.


[1] United States v. Schonewolf, 905 F.3d 683, 685 (3rd Cir. 2018).

[2] Id. at 686.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 687.

[5] Id. at 692-93.

[6] 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a).

[7] Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 327 (2011).

[8] Schonewolf, 905 F.3d at 689-90.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11]  Id. at 690-91.

[12] Id.

[13] Schonewolf, 905 F.3d at 691.

[14] United States v. Thornton, 846 F.3d 1110, 1116 (10th Cir. 2017).

[15] Id. (quoting Tapia, 546 U.S. at 335).

[16] Thornton, 846 F.3d at 1116.

[17] Schonewolf, 905 F.3d at 691.

[18] Id. at 692.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 692-93.