WASHINGTON — Alejandra Tapia's tough life is now one for the law books, as the Supreme Court on Thursday agreed with her that judges can't lengthen prison sentences in order to get inmates into drug rehab.
The unanimous decision resolves a sentencing conflict that's divided lower-level courts. It's also a remarkable victory for the 32-year-old Tapia, who fought long odds simply to be heard.
"She has been sexually and physically abused since she was a teenager ... and she needs help," U.S. District Judge Barry Moskowitz noted during Tapia's original trial, its transcript shows.
Justice Elena Kagan dispensed with Tapia's personal story with one sentence in the 15-page majority opinion. The high court's sole stated interest was in interpreting a statute.
In 2009, Tapia was convicted of crimes that included trying to smuggle illegal aliens through the San Ysidro, Calif., border crossing.
The trial judge imposed a 51-month sentence. This was longer than it might have been, but the judge noted that it was long enough to make Tapia eligible for a drug treatment program at a federal prison in Dublin, Calif.
Tapia originally went along with the longer prison term, but then she challenged it as violating a sentencing-overhaul law.
A lower-level appellate court that covers Western states including California, Idaho and Washington rejected Tapia's argument. An appellate court that covers Pennsylvania and several other East Coast states, though, had accepted similar sentencing challenges other prisoners had raised.
In the Supreme Court decision issued Thursday, justices noted that the sentencing law that Congress passed declared that imprisonment can serve only the purposes of retribution, public protection and deterrence.
"What Congress said was that when sentencing an offender to prison, the court shall consider all the purposes of punishment except rehabilitation, because imprisonment is not an appropriate means of pursuing that goal," Kagan wrote.
In part, Kagan noted, this reflected congressional skepticism about the rehabilitative potential of imprisonment.
"What's clear is that they doubted that rehabilitation could be reliably induced in the prison setting," Tapia's appointed attorney, Reuben Camper Cahn of San Diego, said during oral argument.
Tapia is incarcerated at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Texas, which specializes in medical and mental health services for female inmates. Her sentence, which calls for her to be released in November 2012, now will be re-evaluated.
Kagan's opinion in Tapia v. United States didn't have to fiddle with the Constitution at all. Instead, it dealt almost entirely with the language of legislation, with references to "standard rules of grammar" and various dictionary definitions. The justices took less than two months to decide it, after the April oral argument.
For Tapia, though, the decision marks a remarkable turn of good fortune. Simply convincing the court to hear the challenge was unusual.
She filed an "in forma pauperis" petition to the Supreme Court because she couldn't afford the usual $300 fee. Few such petitions last long. Last term, the court's docket included 3,678 "in forma pauperis" petitions. Justices agreed to hear fewer than 10.
Tapia, who was a teenage mother, previously was convicted of possessing 66 pounds of marijuana for sale. She and a friend then were caught Jan. 14, 2008, when a San Ysidro border guard smelled gasoline in their Jeep Cherokee. Officials subsequently found two illegal immigrants stuffed into the car's reworked gasoline compartment.
Indicted on two counts of smuggling, Tapia fled. Six months later, she was captured in a trailer, where authorities also seized methamphetamine and a sawed-off shotgun. Prosecutors added a third charge, of bail jumping, and secured a conviction.
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