Finding “Tapia Error”: How Circuit Courts Have Misread Tapia v. United States and Shortchanged the Penological Goals of the Sentencing Reform Act
J.D. Candidate, 2016, Vanderbilt University Law School; B.A., 2009, New York University. This Note is the beneficiary of incredible support from my peers on the Vanderbilt Law Review. In particular, I wish to thank Alex Ellman, Hannah McSween, Laura Ezell, Clint Barker, and Laura McKenzie for their feedback. I am also grateful to Professor Edward Cheng, who reviewed an early draft, and the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Middle District of Tennessee, whose attorneys shared their insights. Finally, I wish to thank Karri, Winnie, and my parents for their unconditional love. Any remaining errors are my own.
In the 2011 case Tapia v. United States, the Supreme Court interpreted the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (“SRA”) as providing that “when sentencing an offender to prison, the court shall consider all the purposes of punishment except rehabilitation.” Circuit courts have inconsistently reconciled this proscription with the Court’s parallel observation that “[a] court commits no error by discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison.” This Note deconstructs the circuit split over what amounts to a “Tapia error,” elucidating the Tapia Court’s desired distinction between “consideration” and “discussion.” Ultimately, this Note argues that the circuit-split majority uses an administrative shortcut that rewrites Tapia and undercuts the penological goals of the SRA. Conversely, the circuit-split minority’s approach is faithful to Tapia and the SRA, and practicable in light of the substantial-rights prong of the plain-error standard of review, which provides a needed buffer against sentencing reversals (a motivation behind the majority’s misguided approach).