Fault Lines
18 August 2017
washington juvenile sentencing

Nine out of Nine Washington State Supremes Agree: “Children Are Different”

March 8, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Last week, the Washington State Supreme Court handed down a decision sending two juvenile males, who robbed trick-or-treaters at gunpoint in a mini-crime spree, back to court for new sentencing hearings. The juveniles were 17 and 16 at the time of the robberies, which enriched them by one cell phone and 96 pieces of candy, and possibly a pair of interesting prison nicknames.

They were sentenced to 31 and 26 years respectively, even though no one was hurt.

Armed robbery is a serious crime, but the sentences were very harsh when you consider the age of the defendants. This sentiment was also felt by the Pierce County, Washington prosecutor who brought the case and the judge who handed down the sentences. But according to them, their hands were tied by mandatory sentencing guidelines adopted in the mid-1990s based on the “juvenile superpredator” theory espoused by political scientist and criminologist John DiIulio.

In the words of the sentencing judge, from the Supreme Court opinion:

And it frustrates me because as I’m sitting here, I wouldn’t tell you I wouldn’t exercise more discretion in your favor if I had that opportunity to do so. But the law is an oath that I took to enforce. [sic] And in this particular case, I don’t have any option because if I did do something different than what the law requires me to do, it would simply be overturned by another court, and we’d be back here for resentencing.

DiIulio turned out to be wrong, but not before he heavily influenced president Bill Clinton. The teen superpredator notion also influenced Washington State legislators.

It’s not as if there wasn’t a significant juvenile crime problem at the time either. Some people feel that banning lead in gas and paint had a significant positive effect on the mental health of juvenile populations in poor areas, as it reduced exposure.

Lead has been shown to adversely affect areas of the brain responsible for impulse control, reasoning, attention span and mental flexibility. Not that you can blame everything on lead exposure. Even without lead, you still have kids entering the system who have committed serious, sometimes horrible crimes.

The Washington Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling newly allows judges to consider mitigating circumstances: say, that your parents ignored you and, during your formative years, plopped you down in front of a TV with a video game that gives you points for carjackings, rapes and murders. Substance abuse by your parents can have adverse effects on a kid too, whether it’s a mom who smokes crack or a mom who is sloshed on martinis all day, or a dad who snorts everything up his nose. Living in an environment like that is bound to be detrimental to a child’s development.

Poverty also rears its ugly head in brain development and ability to assimilate. Simple access to schools with the right resources matters. Kids who are homeless, hungry and constantly living in a state of siege are more prone to feeling frustrated, helpless, or enraged when they see people who don’t appear to have a problem in the world.

Sexual abuse, violence, even forcing an extreme religious environment, can all seriously screw with a kid during their formative years.

Not everyone is going to be happy with the court’s decision. Plenty of inmates are going to get their lawyers to petition the courts for resentencing hearings and this is bound to make some folks worry that a bunch of violent criminals will be hitting the streets soon or in the next few years.

The ACLU of Washington submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. Youth Policy director Vanessa Hernandez said:

We hope this decision spurs the Washington legislature to take a hard look at our state’s outdated laws that lead to the automatic prosecution of juveniles in adult court, and leads to the development of solutions that recognize the needs and potential of children.

She might not want to hold her breath on that. There are plenty of legislators with a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality (as long as it’s not their own kids.) Many will see this as an end run around Washington State’s “Automatic Decline” rule, which sends certain young defendants directly to adult court where the focus is on punishment rather than the juvenile courts’ goal of rehabilitation.

Automatic decline is a holdover from the Clinton-era DiIulio-influenced crime legislation that swept the nation. Most states have some form of it in place. The question remains whether it was good policy or not. Many police and prosecutors feel that all violent 16 and 17-year-old offenders should automatically be sent to adult court.

Time will tell. This month’s ruling should not be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Nor will it result in a sudden purge of violent criminals from the prison system. It does, however, give judges a little more discretion in sentencing, and the kids who can find their way might have a chance at a normal life instead of rotting away in prison for 20 or 30 years.

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