Not-So-Sweet Sixteen: When Minor Convictions Have Major Consequences under Career Offender Guidelines

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Imagine Rick is fifteen years old. After leaving school one day, he joins his friends and heads down to the local grocery store. On a dare, he shoves a bag boy and steals thirty dollars from an open cash register, but is caught running out the door. The prosecutor assigned to Rick's case decides to prosecute him in adult criminal court, which she is permitted to do under a state statute. Rick is convicted as an adult of felony robbery, but sentenced to serve his time in a facility that houses fifteen- to twenty-five-year-olds. Rick spends one year and one month in the facility.

After staying out of trouble for a few years, Rick is again arrested when he is nineteen, this time charged with possession with intent to deliver marijuana. He is prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to serve three years in the same facility as before. A few years after his release, Rick sells cocaine to a federal agent near a housing project and is indicted on a number of drug-related charges. He is convicted of this federal crime.

When sentencing Rick for this most recent crime, the district court judge turns to the United States Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines"). Considering Rick's two previous arrests, the judge determines that Rick is a "career offender" and is thus eligible for the commensurate sentencing enhancement.1 Because he stole thirty dollars when he was fifteen, and even though he served his sentence among other juveniles, Rick's sentence is enhanced from ten years to thirty. Instead of getting out of prison at age thirty five, he will be over fifty five.

Rick's situation is not as unbelievable as one may think. The facts of this hypothetical loosely mirror a recent Seventh Circuit case,2 and similarly predicated sentencing enhancements have been upheld by the Third and Ninth Circuits.3 All three circuits reasoned that adult convictions stemming from crimes committed before the age of eighteen can count toward the career offender sentencing provisions of the Guidelines ("Career Offender Guidelines"), regardless of whether the prior sentence was served in a juvenile facility.4 The Fourth and Eleventh Circuits stand in opposition; they apply the Career Offender Guidelines by inquiring into the nature of the sentence served.5 If a prior conviction resulted in a sentence served in a juvenile facility, this conviction cannot be counted toward a career offender determination.6

At first blush, it may seem more just to adopt the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits' interpretation of the Guidelines, but the full scope of the problem is more complicated. How would the Fourth Circuit, for example, characterize Rick's first two sentences, served in a facility that houses both juveniles and adults? What if Rick had been in a jurisdiction that altogether prohibited adult courts from sentencing offenders to juvenile confinement facilities? Discrepancies among the states mean that similar offenses may lead to completely different convictions and sentences.7 Adopting the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits' approach does not provide a uniform resolution to the problems arising with these types of enhancements.

This Note looks beyond the circuit split to the larger juvenile justice issues implicated by these sentencing practices. Part II provides a brief overview of the juvenile justice system, juvenile transfer statutes, and the Guidelines. Part III explores the interpretive issues that have led to this circuit split. Part IV explains why resolving this circuit split requires more than choosing one side, and expands the discussion by analyzing the impact of recent judicial and scientific trends on the treatment of juvenile offenders in the adult system. Part V proposes that convictions occurring before the age of eighteen should not be factored into a career offender enhancement, regardless of the nature of the conviction or sentence. Ultimately, this solution creates a judicially manageable rule supported by Supreme Court precedent, state law, and the overall rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system. …