Ronald Reagan once joked that the nine most terrifying words in English are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
When the government official is a federal judge, and she helps by sending you to prison for twice your recommended sentence, it’s especially terrifying. Federal judges have been helping criminal defendants in this way for more than a decade, and even though the U.S. Supreme Court has told them to stop, some judges continue to do it.
That’s what happened to Michael Jeczalik. In an order recently reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro of the Southern District of Florida sentenced Jeczalik to two years in prison instead of the recommended five to 11 months so that he would have a chance—but no guarantee—of getting into a drug abuse program in prison.
As with the proverbial official in Reagan’s joke, her intention was good, but the assistance she offered was more frightening than helpful. What’s more, it wasn’t lawful.
In the interest of full disclosure, I had the privilege of serving as a law clerk for Judge Ungaro, and I hold her judicial talent in high regard. This case goes to show that even good judges with good motives can make mistakes.
Jeczalik was out of prison on supervised release after serving time for bank robbery. The terms of his supervised release required that he stay away from drugs and participate in a drug treatment program. He violated both those terms, got caught and pled guilty.
The federal sentencing guidelines recommended that the appropriate prison term for Jeczalik was between five and 11 months.
At Jeczalik’s sentencing hearing, Ungaro noted that drug addiction remained a problem for him and that she wanted him to participate in the Residential Drug Abuse Program—an in-prison program available to inmates sentenced to two years or more. There were three problems, however, with getting him into the program.
First, Ungaro lacked the power either to order him into the program or to order the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to put him in the program. Second, she lacked the power to send him to a prison that had the program. And third, the high end of the sentencing guidelines range was only eleven months.
To help him get into the program, she sentenced Jeczalik to two years of imprisonment. She said, “I think that this is the best course of action under these circumstances where we have this intersection between drug abuse, drug addiction and mental illness.”
Her motive was good—no doubt, Jeczalik needed substance-abuse rehabilitation—but her solution was neither just nor legally permissible.
The Sentencing Reform Act says that when a judge decides how long to imprison someone, she must bear in mind “that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”
In 2011, in Tapia v. United States (a case very similar to this one), the Supreme Court unanimously held that the act prohibited a judge from imposing or lengthening a prison term in order to make a prisoner eligible for the Residential Drug Abuse Program.
In yet another similar case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit explained the reasoning behind the rule: “Congress wanted to be sure that no defendant was locked up in order to put him in a place where it was hoped that rehabilitation would occur.”
After all, district judges have no power to order a defendant into a rehabilitation program or even to order the Bureau of Prisons to house a defendant in a prison that has such a program. So when Judge Ungaro more than doubled Jeczalik’s recommended sentence, the only thing she could be certain of is that he would spend far more time in prison than the law said he ought to.
That’s precisely the sort of help that Reagan joked about. Only in this case, it was no laughing matter.
Why is this still happening if the Supreme Court and many of the courts of appeals have held it unlawful? For one, judges may not be paying sufficient attention to the decisions coming out of the higher courts. For another, some judges fall into the trap of thinking they’re all powerful when, in fact, their power is quite limited.
Judges also may not know that the Residential Drug Abuse Program is only one of three formal drug abuse programs in the Bureau of Prisons. Another program, the Nonresidential Drug Abuse Treatment program is specifically designed for prisoners with short sentences. And another, the Community Treatment Services program, helps offenders who are reentering society through halfway houses or home confinement.
Better knowledge of these programs might encourage judges not to overincarcerate offenders with substance-abuse issues.
Still other reforms are needed. Programs like Community Treatment Services should be available not only to those who are finishing prison terms, but also those who are serving terms of supervised release.
Judges have considerably more control over the terms of a defendant’s supervised release than they do over the terms of imprisonment. They should, therefore, partner with the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice, and Probation and Pretrial Services, to create and implement drug-abuse programs for offenders on supervised release.
Until such programs are created, however, judges should resist the temptation to help by doling out unjust sentences.
This piece originally appeared in Law 360