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Large Upward Variance Rejected in First Substantive Sentencing Reversal, as Third Cir. Clarifies That Rehabilitation Is Not Grounds for Imprisonment

The Third Circuit broke new ground today by reversing, as unreasonably long, a 30-month sentence for counterfeiting checks when the Guidelines range was 2-8 months.

The bulk of the Court's opinion in United States v. Manzella deals with the threshold procedural issue of whether district courts may use imprisonment to promote rehabilitation, in this case drug treatment. The Court says "no," based on 18 U.S.C. 3582(a), which states that "imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation." The Court explains that this is perfectly consistent with 18 U.S.C. 3553(a)(2)(D), which directs district courts to consider rehabilitation in determining sentence, because "imprisonment" and "sentence" do not mean the same thing. Thus, defendants "[can]not be sent to prison or held there for a specific length of time for the sole purpose of rehabilitation. Instead, that legitimate goal of sentencing is to be accomplished through other authorized forms of punishment." Manzella, slip op. at 21.

But another potentially far-reaching ruling in Manzella is the reasonableness holding. While the primary rationale the district court gave for the 30-month sentence was its belief that this was the minimum to qualify the defendant for BOP's 500-hour drug treatment program, the court also cited the defendant's many violations of her pre-trial release conditions. These were substantial: failure to report to drug treatment, breaking home confinement, and testing positive for cocaine. Manzella, slip op. at 4-5. Additionally, the court made a rote recitation of the other Section 3553(a) factors.

Despite the seriousness of these violations, the Third Circuit held that they "cannot alone justify in this case a sentence nearly four times the advisory Guidelines range." Manzella, slip op. at 24. Nor did it matter that the district court recited the other sentencing factors.

In a final twist, the Court seems to raise the bar regarding the level of explanation of sentence district courts must put on the record. The Third Circuit has always required post-Booker that the record reflect the district court's consideration of all non-frivolous arguments advanced by the parties, but Manzella goes a step further by faulting the district court for failing to state "why [it] disagreed with defense counsel's argument that an alternative sentence [of halfway house detention coupled with intensive drug treatment] would have accomplished the district court's rehabilitative goals." Manzella, slip op. at 24. This is a significantly heightened explanation requirement.

It bears remembering that Manzella presents a quite sympathetic defendant. As the Court's affirmance in Colon earlier this week shows, dramatic upward variances are sometimes approved. So far, it is difficult to tell when the seemingly-tougher review afforded in Manzella will apply.

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