Robbing a convenience store at gunpoint or spraying bullets from a moving vehicle are the kinds of crimes that will no longer see 16- and 17-year-olds automatically sent to adult court — and likely, on to adult prison.
Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed legislation that represents what one lawmaker called “a seismic shift” in the state’s efforts to reform the juvenile-justice system. The new law removes a handful of crimes from the list of what are known as auto-decline offenses and extends juvenile jurisdiction for those specific crimes to age 25.
The new law also increases sentences for those crimes, called A++ offenses, with the time served in juvenile-rehabilitation facilities instead of the state’s prisons.
“There’s excitement about this particular bill being able to move the needle on recidivism rates and racial disparities in our sentencings,” said Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate.
“The time to rehabilitate someone is when they’re young. That’s your best chance,” she said. “If we can get this right, we can really reduce the number of people we have in prison.”
Auto decline — in which the juvenile system automatically declines its jurisdiction over a minor and the case is filed in adult court — was created in 1994, at a time when violent-crime rates were peaking nationwide.
County prosecutors were granted discretion to decide which 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious violent offenses, such as murder, rape and aggravated assault, would be tried as adults and which would remain in the juvenile system.
In 2017, 27 auto-decline cases were filed in Pierce County, according to the county Prosecutor's Office.
Juvenile-court jurisdiction ends at age 21, so the move to auto decline older juveniles into the adult system was a significant change. Auto decline transferred decision-making to prosecutors from judges, who still decide when to send younger juveniles into the adult system after holding a discretionary decline hearing. But for 16- and 17-year-olds, it meant automatically facing adult charges — and adult consequences, in the form of lengthy prison terms.
Three years later, in 1997, the list of auto-decline offenses was expanded to include first-degree robbery, drive-by shooting, first-degree child rape, first-degree burglary if a juvenile had committed a prior offense, and any violent crime allegedly committed with a firearm.
Up until last year, juveniles convicted in adult court faced the same standard sentences and sentence enhancements as adults, while those convicted of the same crimes in juvenile court could be held only until their 21st birthdays.
Senate Bill 6160, the bill signed by the governor last month, rolls back the 1997 amendment, removing those offenses — with the exception of first-degree child rape — from the list of crimes that can automatically send 16- and 17-year-olds into the adult system.
The new law does not affect youths who commit crimes after turning 18. But it does represent another incremental step in changing the way the criminal-justice system treats juveniles accused of committing violent offenses, said Kim Ambrose, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington’s School of Law.
“We would not be where we are in rethinking our sentencing policies if not for our U.S. Supreme Court and our Washington state Supreme Court,” said Ambrose, who testified before the Senate’s Human Services and Corrections Committee in support of the bill.
Since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a trio of rulings based on neuroscience that’s proven adolescent brains aren’t fully developed until age 25 — and as a result, juveniles are considered less culpable than adults for criminal behavior. Science also has shown that adolescents possess a greater propensity for change and rehabilitation compared to adults.
Last year, a state Supreme Court ruling gave trial judges unfettered discretion in sentencing defendants who were juveniles at the time a crime was committed and then convicted in adult, or superior, court.
Judges, who now must consider a defendant’s age when a crime was committed as a mitigating circumstance, have the discretion to depart from standard sentencing ranges and aren’t required to impose mandatory enhancements on young people “auto declined” into the adult system. The new law takes the ruling a step further by removing offenses that make 16- and 17-year-olds automatically eligible for adult prosecution.
But it has not been without controversy.
Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that advocates for low-income and marginalized people, asked Inslee to veto a section of the bill that adds extra time to a juvenile’s sentence for committing a crime with a firearm or being involved in a gang. Inslee declined.
Sentences for A++ offenses were set by the state Legislature at 129 to 260 weeks — or roughly 2.7 to 5.4 years, with officials at the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) deciding when a young person is released and whether he or she is placed on parole. The enhancements, to be served consecutively, will add 12 months for use of a firearm and three months for membership in a gang.
“The enhancements were included in the bill with no evidence they improve rehabilitative efforts or strengthen community safety,” said attorney Nick Allen of Columbia Legal Services.
The enhancements run counter to recent federal and state case law that promotes individualized sentencing for juveniles, and they are likely to disproportionately impact youths of color, Allen said.
Still, “There’s a lot to like about it. There’s a lot of innovative and progressive changes,” he said of the new law.
Though it’s unclear how many cases statewide the new law will prevent from being filed in adult court, first-degree robbery is the charge that has most frequently landed 16- and 17-year-olds in King County in the adult system, said Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
According to Satterberg’s office, first-degree robbery accounted for 40 percent of the 35 auto-decline cases filed by his office in 2017. As of last week, there were 16 robbery cases pending in adult court involving youths who were 16 and 17 at the time a crime was allegedly committed.
“The legislation does not directly address what should happen with pending cases, including some where the defendants have now turned 18,” Satterberg said in an email. “This raises complex legal questions about the juvenile court’s jurisdiction so our office is carefully evaluating how to handle these pending cases.”
Auto decline also disproportionately impacts young people of color, particularly African-American boys, who made up roughly 48 percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds charged as adults last year in King County, according to prosecutors.
Research by the nonpartisan Washington Institute for Public Policy has found that automatically sending juveniles to adult court, and adult prison, increases recidivism.
“One in three do go back,” Kuderer, the Bellevue senator, said of the auto-decline recidivism rate. “It should be alarming and it should be revealing the ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system.”
Included in the new law is a requirement that the Washington Institute for Public Policy assess the law’s impact on community safety, racial disproportionality, recidivism, cost and youth rehabilitation, with a preliminary report due in December 2023 and a final report by December 2031.
“Sending a young person into adult prison is a very serious decision that can have lifelong implications,” said Satterberg. “In 20 years, we’ve learned a lot about the science of cognitive development and now it’s informing our case law and our practice.”
Before the new law was passed, prosecutors ran up against the end of juvenile jurisdiction on a defendant’s 21st birthday, with a young person going free without parole or probation, he said.
“For serious violent crimes, that is not enough time to ensure public safety,” Satterberg said.
Extending juvenile jurisdiction to age 25 for A++ offenses gives young people additional time to engage in programming that officials hope will allow them to change the trajectory of their lives, said Marybeth Queral, JRA’s assistant secretary.
It’ll take a few years before the first youth remains in custody past age 21, which gives the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration time to prepare housing units, develop age-appropriate programs and expand parole, Queral said.