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Appeals Court: No lifetime supervised release for drug traffickers

In July 2010, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued a report on the federal supervised release program, which is similar to parole. The main purpose of the program, the report said, is "to facilitate the reintegration of federal prisoners back into the community."

In other words, supervised release is not meant as a form of punishment, even when a judge feels a convicted defendant's sentence isn't harsh enough. A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of appeals based a unanimous ruling on that principle early this week. The Second Circuit covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont, while Pennsylvania is in the Third. However, the principle is likely to be upheld in any federal circuit.

The case involved two men who were convicted in 2003 of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, violent crimes and attempted murder. The alleged ringleader was also convicted of murder. They were sentenced to life in prison.

About 10 years later, however, a key cooperating witness changed his story. Not only did he partially recant the allegations he had made against the men, but he also admitted having received a benefit from the government in exchange for his testimony.

From life imprisonment to life on supervisory release

That change in circumstances resulted in the men receiving a new plea deal. The federal prosecutor agreed to drop the most serious counts. After negotiations, the men accepted a deal that could result in a maximum of 30 years behind bars.

The federal judge sentenced them to the top of the available range, which was within her discretion. Then, however, she went further. After they had served their time, they would be put on supervised release for the rest of their lives.

The Second Circuit suspected the lifetime term of supervised release was not intended to help the men reintegrate into the community. Nor was it likely to be an effective way to meet other lawful goals like reducing recidivism or increasing public safety.

Naturally, the panel wrote, trial courts must weigh the seriousness of the defendants' offenses when sentencing and applying mandatory considerations. "But 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."

Supervised release "is not a punishment in lieu of incarceration."

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