Lessening the Rehabilitative Focus of the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act: A Trend towards Punitive Juvenile Dispositions?

By Lewis, Meghan E. | Missouri Law Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Lessening the Rehabilitative Focus of the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act: A Trend towards Punitive Juvenile Dispositions?


Lewis, Meghan E., Missouri Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Both the federal and state governments have recognized that criminal adults and delinquent juveniles are fundamentally different. Acknowledging that juveniles are more amenable to successful rehabilitation than adults, each government has created a separate juvenile justice system to better handle these unique concerns. The federal structure for juvenile adjudication was established by the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act ("FJDA," "the Act"), (2) and was enacted to provide individualized rehabilitation for juvenile delinquents in an informal, less procedurally rigid setting than traditional criminal courts. (3) The FJDA grants federal district courts considerable discretion in determining whether a juvenile should be adjudicated under the FJDA or prosecuted as an adult, as well as in balancing the broadly categorized factors enumerated in the Act.

Despite the FJDA's recognition that juveniles are more suitable to rehabilitation than adults, courts seem to be moving away from a rehabilitative approach of juvenile delinquency dispositions. In United States v. M.R.M., the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a punitive disposition of a teenage girl that resulted in a sentence of nearly three years of incarceration. (4) This ruling is an example, therefore, of courts ignoring the rehabilitative purpose of the FJDA. This Note argues that the decision in United States v. M.R.M. marks a change toward delivering punitive juvenile justice in the Eighth Circuit, and that the informal structure of the FJDA, combined with significant judicial discretion, vague factors of consideration outlined in the statute, and a lack of sentencing guidelines has the potential to create disparate dispositions among similarly situated juveniles.

II. FACTS AND HOLDING

In 2004, an unknown man assaulted then sixteen year-old M.R.M. while she was with three other female acquaintances. (5) During the attack, the acquaintances left M.R.M. alone and did not assist her. (6) A few days after the attack, while at a house on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, M.R.M.

realized that one of the acquaintances was going to be visiting that same house. (7) With a baseball bat in hand, M.R.M. met the girl at the door and proceeded to strike her numerous times, severely injuring the girl. (8) M.R.M. was charged under the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act with a two-count information charge, one for assault with a dangerous weapon and the other for assault resulting in serious bodily injury. (9) Rejecting the government's recommendation that M.R.M. be put on probation for three years, the district court ordered M.R.M. to be committed in official detention (10) until she reached the age of twenty-one. (11) As a result of this order, M.R.M. spent a total of thirty-four months and twenty days in detention. (12) M.R.M. appealed for review of the sentence and based her appeal on the district court's rejection of the government's recommended sentence of probation and the court's much harsher sentence of nearly three years imprisonment. (13)

On appeal to the Eighth Circuit, M.R.M. argued that the district court erred in the determination of her punishment. (14) M.R.M. contended that the court was plainly unreasonable in making its decision and that the decision was contrary to existing law. (15) She also argued that the court's consideration of her prior arrests as character evidence was unfairly prejudicial. (16) M.R.M.'s arguments attacked the court's broad discretion of sentencing juveniles and the disparities resulting from such discretion. (17) The court, however, did not find M.R.M.'s grounds for appeal persuasive and ultimately affirmed the district court's sentencing determination, finding that her sentence was not plainly unreasonable nor contrary to law, and that the district court did not plainly err when it considered her prior arrest record when determining her sentence. (18)

III. …

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