PUBLISHED:March 05, 2024

Children’s Law and Criminal Defense Clinics team up to advocate for fairer sentencing


Excluding judicial determinations for offenses committed as youths from criminal history calculations will promote more equitable and consistent sentencing of adult defendants, clinic members argued in public comments to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Clinical Professor Peggy Nicholson Clinical Professor Peggy Nicholson

Duke Law’s Children’s Law Clinic and Criminal Defense Clinic partnered to submit public comments encouraging the U.S. Sentencing Commission to adopt new guidelines that would result in fairer sentencing for defendants in federal court who have prior convictions or adjudications for offenses they committed as children.

The Clinics advocated for the Commission to exclude all judicial determinations resulting from offenses committed prior to age eighteen from being considered in the calculation of an adult defendant’s criminal history score.

“Although all Duke Law Clinics are part of the same firm and often serve the same communities, it's rare that Clinics get to collaborate on individual cases given their different practice areas,” said Peggy Nicholson, clinical professor of law and supervising attorney of the Children’s Law Clinic.

“This project offered an exciting opportunity for the Children's Law and Criminal Defense Clinics to bring our respective expertise to a project involving the way our criminal legal system handles offenses committed by children.”

The Advanced Clinic students’ work was supervised and reviewed by Nicholson and Lauren Fine, assistant clinical professor of law and supervising attorney of the Criminal Defense Clinic.

Advanced Criminal Defense Clinic students Alana Farkas ’24 and Courtney Schrater ’24 led the research and drafting of the comments submitted in response to the Commission’s new proposed amendments. In advocating for the exclusion of youthful offenses in calculating a defendant’s criminal history score, the Clinics’ comments relied on the lineage of United States Supreme Court cases and the neuroscience research that establishes that youth have diminished culpability relative to adults to argue that because of the unique characteristics of youth, offenses committed as a child should not be considered in federal sentencing calculations.

Assistant Clinical Professor Lauren Fine
Assistant Clinical Professor Lauren Fine

The Clinics’ comments also pointed to state-by-state differences in the treatment of youthful offenses, with some states processing a young person’s case in the juvenile system and others subjecting a similarly situated youth to the more punitive adult system.

Given these differences, the Clinics’ comments rejected a proposal to distinguish between juvenile adjudications and adult convictions in calculating criminal history scores. Instead, to promote equity in the treatment of federal defendants and avoid inconsistency based on geography, the Clinics’ comments advocated that all offenses committed by minors be excluded regardless of whether they were processed in juvenile or adult court.  

In addition to providing law students an opportunity to engage in policy advocacy, this project represented an important cross-clinic collaboration that raised both significant criminal defense and youth justice issues, Nicholson said.

All public comments received for the proposed amendments can be found on the U.S. Sentencing Commission website.