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Pepper v. United States: “Punishment Should Fit the Offender”

| March 7, 2011

Seven years ago, Jason Pepper, a 25-year old drug addict, was arrested as part of a methamphetamine conspiracy. At the time, Pepper was unemployed and estranged from his family. Now, a drug-free and college-educated Pepper is holding down a steady job in Sioux City, Iowa, supporting his wife and daughter.

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett originally sentenced Pepper to only 24 months in prison, even though the sentencing range under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines was 97 to 121 months. The Government appealed the sentence, and the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for resentencing. By that time, Pepper had completed his 24-month sentence and was beginning a period of supervised release.

At his resentencing hearing, Pepper explained that he had successfully completed a 500-hour drug treatment program, enrolled at a local community college, and had earned straight A’s in his courses the previous semester. He also testified that he had obtained employment, and that he now “had some optimism” in his life. According to Pepper, “my life was going nowhere before, and I think it’s going somewhere now.”

In light of his rehabilitation efforts, the District Court once again sentenced Pepper to 24 months, concluding that “it would not advance any purpose of federal sentencing policy…to send this defendant back to prison.” This raised the interesting legal question of whether a court could properly consider post-sentencing rehabilitation to support a downward variance when resentencing. And, in a recent 6-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it could.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that, as Justice Hugo Black wrote in Williams v. New York,  “the punishment should fit the offender and not merely the crime.”  She also reiterated Chief Justice Warren Burger’s point in Wasman v. United States that permitting courts to consider the widest possible breadth of information about a defendant “ensures that the punishment will suit…the individual defendant.” Since the 2005 case, United States v. Booker, courts are to still “give respectful consideration” to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, but are permitted “to tailor the sentence in light of other statutory concerns as well.”

The importance of rehabilitation efforts to proper sentencing was not lost on Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent. While holding that the Sentencing Guidelines are not advisory, he acknowledged that “post-sentencing rehabilitation can be highly relevant to meaningful resentencing”, and admitted that “in light of Pepper’s success in escaping drug addiction and becoming a productive member of society”, he could find no purpose in further incarceration.

As the Des Moines Register reported, Pepper v. United States should “pave the way for thousands of one-time prisoners to have their good conduct and rehabilitation considered” during resentencing.

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