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Sex Offenders, Supervised Release, and The Eighth Circuit

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, Congress really does not like sex offenders. As it happens, neither do a number of federal district court judges.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently made it a little harder for sentencing judges to act out of unthinking distaste for sex offenders in United States v. Springston.

A little background on Mr. Springston

Mr. Springston was required to register as a sex offender based on a 1986 conviction for sexual assault. Apparently, the sexual assault did not involve a child.

Mr. Springston had not registered as a sex offender. He was indicted for failing to register as a sex offender under 18 U.S.C. S 2250.

He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. The sentencing court also imposed ten years of supervised release on the end of his sentence.

A little background on supervised release

Supervised release, for those not familiar with the federal system, is a lot like what you think of as parole, only significantly less pleasant. A person on supervised release has not gotten out of prison earlier than the end of his sentence, and, if he violates his supervision, is not limited in the amount of additional prison time that he can receive by the remaining term of supervision.

When a person is given a sentence that includes supervised release, the sentencing court also sets conditions of supervision – things the person has to do, or he can be violated. If the person is violated, he can be sent back to prison.

Mr. Springston’s supervised release conditions

The sentencing judge imposed three conditions of supervised release that were challenged in his appeal:

  1. He could not have unsupervised contact with a minor
  2. He could not have internet access at his house, or access the internet without the probation officer’s supervision
  3. He had to have mental health treatment.

The sentencing court didn’t spend a lot of time talking about these conditions. From the opinion, it looks like he just took the internet away from Mr. Springston without much thought (which, when you think about things like this, may not be so bad).

The Eighth Circuit vacated these conditions.

What a district court judge has to do when imposing conditions of supervised release, even for a sex offender

First, the law. Eighteen U.S.C. section 3583(d) requires

that a special condition must be reasonably related to the nature and circumstances of the offense of conviction, the defendant’s history and characteristics, the deterrence of criminal conduct, the protection of the public from further crimes of the defendant, and the defendant’s educational, vocational, medical, or other correctional needs.

More importantly, a district court judge can’t just make stuff up for special conditions, even for sex offenders. Rather,

In fashioning a special condition of supervised release, a court must make an individualized inquiry into the facts and circumstances underlying a case and make sufficient findings on the record so as to ensure that the special condition satisfies the statutory requirements.

The Eighth Circuit finds that that the district court can’t just rely on views about sex offenders as a class of people to impose conditions of supervised release

The Eighth Circuit vacated all three challenged conditions.

As to the condition that Mr. Springston not have the internet in his house, the court of appeals observed,

The record . . . is devoid of evidence that Springston has ever used a computer for any purpose.

About the condition that Mr. Springston never be near a child unsupervised – despite that his offense did not involve a child – or that he needed mental health treatment, the district court only explained that

“Mr. Springston’s history as a sex offender justifies all of those conditions.”

The Eighth Circuit disagreed, and vacated these conditions of supervised release.

A condition of supervised release has to be based on an individualized inquiry about the person being sentenced. Mr. Springston’s conditions weren’t.