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2nd Circuit strikes down lifetime supervision of drug traffickers

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has just ruled that prosecutors cannot seek lifetime supervised release for federal prisoners. The federal program is meant to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society and to assist communities adjust to their return. It cannot be used as a way to punish people further once they have served their time.

The Second Circuit covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont. New Jersey is in the Third Circuit. That said, the issues are the same, and a Second Circuit decision would carry significant weight with the Third.

The case in question involved two men who were convicted of serious crimes, including murder and attempted murder, in connection with an alleged cocaine trafficking operation. They were originally sentenced to life in prison.

About 10 years into their sentences, however, one of the key witnesses against them partially recanted his story. Moreover, it was revealed that the witness had received some benefit (presumably a better plea bargain) in exchange for his sentence. This had not been revealed at trial, as is required under the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland.

This new information prompted prosecutors to offer the two men a break. A new plea bargain was arranged that would put them at risk for no more than 30 years in prison.

The trial judge, apparently frustrated, sentenced them to the maximum available time -- and ordered them into supervised release for a lifetime.

Supervised release program 'not a punishment'

That's not allowed, the Second Circuit ruled. The federal supervised release program is not like parole. A period of supervised release is typically ordered at the same time as the original sentence, so it does not take into account any behavior of the defendant beyond that point. Although the program does impose conditions on the ex-offender, supervised release does not replace any portion of the defendant's sentence, unlike parole. Supervised release is not dependent upon good behavior; it is primarily meant to provide an orderly process for reintegration of inmates into society. It "is not a punishment in lieu of incarceration," the court wrote.

The court based this interpretation on a 2010 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That report said the main purpose of the program is "to facilitate the reintegration of federal prisoners back into the community."

"When a supervised release term is inflected with retributive interests -- as appears may have been the case here -- the district court commits procedural error and the supervised release term cannot stand," reads the opinion.

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