Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Mending the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Approach to Consideration of Juvenile Status

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Mending the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Approach to Consideration of Juvenile Status

Article excerpt

In a series of recent cases, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the profound significance of a juvenile offender's age in sentencing, seemingly rendering youth status a mandatory sentencing consideration as a constitutional matter--in at least some cases--and under the statutory sentencing directive. (3) Still, as a matter of policy, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines)--the required starting point for sentencing courts in federal cases and the benchmark for assessing the reasonableness of a sentence for appellate courts (4)--discourage consideration of an offender's youth and related circumstances in determining whether to depart from the recommended statutory sentencing range. (5) Though after United States v. Booker (6) the Guidelines have been advisory only, (7) the Court has recognized that even advisory Guidelines can, at times, exert an impermissible anchoring effect on sentencing courts. (8)

This Note argues that Congress and the United States Sentencing Commission (Commission) should take seriously both the letter and spirit of the Court's recent juveniles-are-different cases, which favor a return to a rehabilitative approach to young offenders. Congress should address apparent conflicts between its statutory sentencing schemes and these recent cases by expanding the range of sentencing options for juvenile offenders convicted in federal court, and the Commission should promulgate new rules regarding calculation of sentences for juveniles convicted as adults in federal court. Further, until such rules are promulgated, this Note contends that appellate courts should hesitate to presume reasonable within-Guideline sentences for juvenile offenders absent evidence that a sentencing court has considered age.

This Note proceeds in four parts. Part I provides a brief history of the Guidelines, from development through the Court's attempts to clarify their place post Booker. Part II describes the history of the treatment of juvenile offenders in federal courts and details the Court's recent juveniles-are-different sentencing jurisprudence. Part III argues that, for various reasons of law and policy, both Congress and the Commission should offer new guidance on how courts should approach the process of sentencing juvenile offenders convicted as adults. Finally, Part IV recommends statutory changes and amendments to the Guidelines.


This Part provides a brief history of the development and evolving role of the Guidelines. Section I.A charts the embrace of a determinate sentencing regime. Section I.B briefly details the Court's decision in Booker and describes the Court's attempts at clarifying the muddle--and the place of the Guidelines--in the years after Booker.

A. From Indeterminate Sentences to Mandatory Guidelines

For about a century until 1984, well-established tradition afforded federal district court judges wide latitude to sentence convicted criminal offenders. (9) Predicated on "the offender's possible, indeed probable, rehabilitation" (10) and the notion that trial court judges "'see[] more and sense[] more' than the appellate court" (11) and the legislature, the indeterminate-sentencing system allowed sentencing judges to define the scope and extent of punishment with little intervention from appellate courts. (12) But beginning in 1933, empirical studies tracked marked disparities in judges' sentencing practices that could not be explained by reference to the characteristics of defendants or their crimes. (13) Judges' idiosyncratic preferences carried the day, and approaches to sentencing varied within and across jurisdictions. (14) Researchers and judges began to question both the rehabilitative potential of prisons (15) and the propriety of offering judges such broad, unguided sentencing discretion. (16)

In 1975, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced legislation to address disparities in sentencing. (17) Nine years later, the 98th Congress enacted and President Reagan signed, as part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 (18) (CCCA), the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (19) (SRA). …

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