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Lifetime of federal supervised release struck down as punitive

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Once inmates have been released, would it be unlawfully punitive to require them to comply with conditional release provisions for the rest of their lives? Yes, at least in the federal system, a three-judge panel ruled this week.

A federal judge had imposed ordering two defendants into lifelong supervised release after their original sentences were shortened. If it was punitive, it was probably meant to be, the Second Circuit found.

"When a supervised release term is inflected with retributive interests -- as appears may have been the case here -- the district court commits procedural error and the supervised release term cannot stand," the court wrote.

Federal supervised release program is primarily meant to reintegrate

The appellate court relied in part on the purpose of the supervised release program when determining the appropriateness of the lifelong order. According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, its main purpose is "to facilitate the reintegration of federal prisoners back into the community."

The furthest the report was willing to go was to say that supervised release is similar to the Second Chance Act of 2007 in that they are both intended to reduce recidivism, improve public safety, and help communities address the growing number of ex-offenders trying to reintegrate.

Supervised release "is not," the Second Circuit stressed, "a punishment in lieu of incarceration."

It's easy to understand how the trial judge who made the order might have been frustrated. The two men were convicted of serious crimes -- racketeering, violent crimes, attempted murder and, in one defendant's case, murder. They were sentenced to life in prison

About a decade into that time, however, evidence of prosecutorial error or misconduct was brought to light when a key cooperating witness partially recanted his story. At the same time, he revealed that he had received a break from the prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Under the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors were required to reveal he had been given that break. Failing to do so violated the defendants' rights.

To the judge's apparent frustration, the error resulted in a new plea bargain and a substantially lower sentence of up to 30 years in prison. The judge sentenced them to the top end of the available range -- and then ordered lifetime supervised release.

Now that the lifetime order has been struck down, it must seem to the judge as if these two defendants have received two very meaningful breaks themselves. We can only hope the judge will not allow frustration to affect the men's upcoming resentencing.

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