Drug Treatment And Vocational Training Improper Sentencing Considerations

Christopher Thornton moved for a downward variance at sentencing arguing, among other things, that “in-prison treatment during the proposed thirty-eight months would help mitigate any potential risk he posed to the community.” The district court denied the motion, but in doing so said that Thornton had “mental-health issues, and he needs treatment” and that the court was “firmly convinced that he needs enough time in prison to get treatment and vocational benefits.” The federal prison system offers drug treatment to prisoners through a residential and non-residential drug treatment program. The residential drug treatment program, commonly known as "RDAP," lasts nine months and allows eligible prisoners to receive up to a year off their sentence for successful completion.

The Tenth Circuit held that it was error for the district court to consider Thornton’s need for drug treatment or vocational training in determining the sentence in light of Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319 (2011). In so holding, the Tenth Circuit clarified that “first, denials of downward-variance motions are subject to Tapia scrutiny. Second, Tapia error can occur even when a district court articulates additional valid reasons for the prison sentence. Third, a district court need not expressly link a prison sentence to a specific treatment program in order to trigger Tapia error. Fourth, there is no Tapia error when a district court addresses rehabilitation merely to refute an offender's argument that in-prison treatment justifies a lesser sentence, but there is error when the district court goes further and grounds his sentence, in part, on the perceived benefit to the offender of providing prison-based rehabilitation.”

However, because Thornton did not object to the error at sentencing, the court held that the lower court’s mistake was not “plain.” This was because the law was uncertain at the time. Thornton’s sentence was accordingly affirmed. United States v. Thornton,  No. 15-1345 (10th Cir. 2017).

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist.Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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