In United States v. Joseph Williams, No. 20-1021 (2d Cir. May 26, 2021), a Panel of the Court (Pooler, Sullivan, and Park) ruled in a per curiam opinion that Williams’s 20-year term of supervised release, to follow a 160-month term of imprisonment, was neither procedurally nor substantively unreasonable on plain-error review. Williams argued principally that the term of supervised release was procedurally faulty because the district court violated 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c), requiring a sentencing court to “state in open court the reasons for its imposition of the particular sentence . . . .” Specifically, while the court the explained the basis for the chosen term of imprisonment (and discussed the § 3553(a) factors in so doing), it “did not separately explain the factors [in] imposing the term of supervised release.” Op. 4.
The Court found “no procedural error in the district court’s failure to separately explain the basis for the term of supervised release after discussing the Section 3553(a) factors in imposing a term of imprisonment.” “Nothing in Section 3553(c) or our caselaw requires a district court to undertake a separate recitation of the basis for each part of the sentence imposed. Where, as here, the district court explains the basis for imposing a term of imprisonment, it need not repeat the process in imposing a term of supervised release.” Op. 6.
The “ordinary rule,” in sum, is that “district courts do not have to separately explain the basis for the term of supervised release.” Op. 6-7.
But there is a “narrow exception”: “Where a district court bases a term of incarceration substantially upon the seriousness of the offense [or on retributive concerns], it would be advisable for the district court to separately state its reasons for the term of supervised release imposed.” Op. 8. The exception is necessary because “not every reason that supports imposing a term of imprisonment supports imposing a term of supervised release.” Id. As Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 326 (2011), pointed out, “a court may not take account of retribution (the first purpose listed in § 3553(a)(2)) when imposing a term of supervised release.” See United States v. Johnson, 529 U.S. 53, 59 (2000) (explaining that supervised release is meant “to assist individuals in their transition to community life” and “fulfills rehabilitative ends, distinct from those served by incarceration.”).
Because “retribution is a proper justification for a term of imprisonment but not for supervised release,” therefore, where “a district court bases a term of incarceration substantially upon the seriousness of the offense, it would be advisable for the district court to separately state its reasons for the term of supervised release imposed.” Op. 7-8. But where retribution is not “the principal articulated basis for the sentence,” “once a district court has explained the basis for its sentence, the district court need not provide a separate basis for a term of supervised release.” Op. 8.
Here, there was no error because “Williams’s sentence, including his term of supervised release, was clearly justified by the need to protect children — a risk the district court noted on the record, see App’x at 74 (‘It’s clear from your conduct . . . that you’re sexually attracted to children. The Court believes that allowing you unfettered access to minors would jeopardize the safety of the community . . . .’).” Op. 8.
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