Seventh Circuit: Earlier Sentence Served in Juvenile Detention Facility Can Make Defendant a Career Offender
After pleading guilty in federal court to various drug-trafficking offenses, Isaiah Gregory received an eye-popping sentence of 327 months in prison — more than 27 years behind bars. Driving this extraordinary sentence was the district court’s finding that Gregory was a “career offender” under the federal sentencing guidelines. It was the career offender guideline that raised Gregory’s guidelines range from either 120-135 months (as he calculated it) or 121-151 months (as the government calculated it) to 262-327 months. Thus, the career-offender finding likely added more than fourteen years to Gregory’s sentence.
Although the term “career offender” may conjure up images of a hardened criminal with a rap sheet down to your knees, the guidelines require only two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense in order to trigger the career-offender sentence enhancement.
Even at that, Gregory hardly seems the sort of defendant that the Sentencing Commission must have had in mind when it drafted the career-offender guideline. In particular, one of his two qualifying convictions was a $30 robbery he committed when he was only fifteen (he is now in his mid-20’s) — a robbery for which he was sent, not to prison, but to a juvenile detention facility. Although it is not clear that the conviction should have counted under the plain terms of the career-offender guideline, the Seventh Circuit nonetheless affirmed his sentence last week in United States v. Gregory (No. 09-2735).
The relevant guidelines provision (the commentary to § 4A1.2) indicates that an offense committed prior to age eighteen counts against a defendant if it “resulted in [an] adult sentence of imprisonment exceeding one year and one month.” Gregory’s robbery conviction was obtained in adult court, but he actually served the resulting sentence in a juvenile detention facility, not an adult prison. The question, then, is whether he had an “adult sentence.” He was sentenced in adult court, but he did not serve his time in an adult facility. It seems that the language could plausibly be interpreted either way.
Indeed, this question has produced a circuit split, with the Fourth Circuit favoring Gregory’s interpretation of “adult sentence” and the Third, Ninth, and Eleventh favoring the government’s interpretation.
In Gregory, the Seventh Circuit joined the majority position, reasoning as follows:
People serve their sentences in many different places: some are moved to private prisons; some wind up spending time in the facilities of another state or the federal government; some are lodged in county jails. The location is unimportant. What does matter is the nature of the underlying conviction.
This approach is certainly a reasonable one, but I wonder why no mention was made of the Rule of Lenity, which seems to me an appropriate way of resolving the ambiguity in the guidelines. (For a couple of recent posts on the Rule of Lenity in the Supreme Court, see here and here.)
I also wonder why a fifteen-year old was prosecuted in adult court and sentenced to six years of confinement (as Gregory was) for a $30 robbery. The case may illustrate an important problem with the use of juvenile offenses in order to enhance later federal sentences: the same juvenile offenses can be handled dramatically differently depending on differences in state law and highly discretionary decisions made by prosecutors and judges. Giving as much weight to juvenile offenses as the guidelines called for in Gregory guarantees dramatic disparities between similarly situated offenders — precisely what the guidelines were intended to prevent.
Finally, I wonder why the distict court judge sentenced Gregory at the very top of a very severe guidelines range — especially when Gregory at most only just barely qualified for a career-offender range. If anything, this would seem an appropriate scenario for a district judge to exercise his post-Booker discretion to impose a below-range sentence.
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