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Court strikes down lifetime supervised release order as punitive

A pair of defendants has received a second break on a conviction that once earned them life in prison. After a series of mistakes got their sentences knocked down to thirty years behind bars -- but with lifetime supervised release when they were out. Now an appellate court has ruled that supervised release order was probably meant to let a frustrated judge extend the men's prison terms.

But federal supervised release "is not a punishment in lieu of incarceration," wrote a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Federal supervised release program primarily meant to facilitate the reintegration

Supervised release is a lot like parole in that it places conditions on a convicted defendant who is leaving the prison system. It differs from parole in a number of ways, however. For one thing, state parole boards can base their decisions on things besides the seriousness of the original crime. They can, for example, look for evidence of the defendant's remorse, or deny parole based on prison disciplinary violations.

For another thing supervised release, unlike parole, is not determined months or years after the defendant is convicted. Under the federal process, judges set the supervised release conditions and period at the time of sentencing.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission which lays out the rules, the primary purpose of federal supervised release is "to facilitate the reintegration of federal prisoners back into the community."

A lifetime of supervised release found punitive, a procedural error

The Second Circuit's ruling came in the case of two men who were convicted in 2003 of a number of serious crimes in alleged furtherance of cocaine trafficking. They were sentenced to life imprisonment, but later learned their rights had been violated during trial.

About 10 years into their sentences, they received word that one of the key witnesses against them had partially recanted his story. Furthermore, he had received certain benefits (probably a reduced sentence) in exchange for his testimony but the prosecution had not disclosed that fact. Failure to do so was a so-called "Brady violation," after the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which held that prosecutors must turn over any pro-defense information they have.

That change ultimately got their sentences reduced to 30 years in prison. The trial judge, frustrated perhaps, tacked on a lifetime term of supervised release.

The Second Circuit struck that down. "When a supervised release term," the court wrote, "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 men will now return to the same trial court for resentencing.

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