For Alejandra Tapia, prison as punishment

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that focuses on a narrow issue: whether a judge had the right to increase a convicted defendant’s sentence so she could participate in a rehabilitation program in prison. But the case of Alejandra Tapia also raises the much broader question of whether Congress should reconsider the nature and purpose of incarceration.

After being convicted of smuggling illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, Tapia came before a federal judge who sentenced her to a period in prison long enough for her to enter a drug rehabilitation program with a long waiting list. The judge said that “one of the factors that affects this is the need to provide treatment.”

His heart was in the right place. Faced with a woman with a sad history, he sought to use his office to help her improve her situation. But Tapia’s lawyer cites language in federal law saying that “imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” The only approved objectives of imprisonment are deterrence, incapacitation and retribution.


The lawyer defending the enhanced sentence acknowledged that Congress has rejected the “rehabilitative ideal, the amorphous hope of reforming every convicted criminal’s soul through isolation and prison routine.” But he insisted that the law allows a judge to consider “needed educational or vocational training, medical care or other correctional treatment.”

Tapia’s lawyer’s reading of the law is the more persuasive. For better or worse, since the 1980s federal sentencing policy has de-emphasized the importance of rehabilitation. That is reflected not only in sentencing but in the abolition of parole. A federal prisoner who rehabilitates himself is released only slightly sooner than an incorrigible one.

There are reasons for this shift: Too often, decisions about who was sufficiently rehabilitated to be released were subjective and unfair to minorities. But that doesn’t mean rehabilitation is a waste of time, which is why prisons continue to offer programs like the one the judge believed Tapia should attend. It might be time for Congress to revisit the question of whether rehabilitation also should figure in how long someone is sentenced to serve in prison, and how fast he or she gets out.