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Fewer Teens May End Up in Adult Courts

This past March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill that will limit the number of youth who can be tried as adults in criminal courts.

SB 6160 significantly reformed the state’s automatic decline (auto decline) system; a system under which juveniles (16- and 17-year old) charged with certain violent offenses were sent to adult courts for adjudication, without a hearing and without any consideration of relevant circumstances.

Juvenile Versus Adult Courts

As a division of the state’s superior court system, the juvenile courts have jurisdiction over youth under the age of 18 who are charged with committing a crime. Juveniles, even those under age 16, can be charged as adults but are first subject to a discretionary decline hearing. In such cases, the judge makes a determination based on witness and expert testimony; the juvenile’s criminal history, school record, home environment, sophistication, and maturity; the threat to public safety posed by the juvenile; and the likelihood of rehabilitation.

Youth tried in juvenile court may participate in rehabilitation programs, seek a deferred disposition for eligible offenses, and have their records sealed. They avoid the stigma of an adult felony conviction and lengthy pretrial detention and are generally not subjected to financial fees or costs.

The History of Auto Decline

The Washington State Legislature first adopted auto-decline policies in 1994 during a period of “tough on crime” measures. Under these measures juveniles charged with a serious violent offense (rape, first- and second-degree murder, manslaughter, and first-degree assault) were automatically sent to adult court. In 1997, the legislature increased the number of eligible offenses to include first-degree robbery, drive-by shooting, first-degree child rape, and first-degree burglary if the juvenile had committed a prior offense. Additionally, any violent crime allegedly committed with a firearm could also have triggered an auto decline.

Critics of auto decline said it violated the due process rights of youth and eliminated the opportunity for a judge to consider mitigating circumstances about the offense and the individual before subjecting them to adult court, all while doing little to prevent juvenile crime. In 2013 the nonpartisan Washington Institute for Public Policy found that automatically sending juveniles to adult court and adult prison increased recidivism. Additional research suggested teens were more responsive to rehabilitation than adults.

There have also been legal challenges, spurred on in part by neuroscience research that showed adolescent brains aren’t fully developed until age 25.  Critics used this information to call into question whether or not young offenders were fully capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. Since 2005, the US Supreme Court has handed down several rulings (Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, Montgomery v. Louisiana) supporting leniency in juvenile sentencing.

In 2017 the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that youths should not be automatically treated like adults in criminal courts because “children are different” and criminal sentences must take their age into account. The State of Washington v. Zyion Houston-Sconiers involved two young men, Zyion Houston-Sconiers and Treson Roberts,  serving decades-long jail sentences for robbing Halloween trick-or-treaters of candy and an iPhone when they were 17 and 16, respectively. Because the robberies involved a handgun, both juveniles were charged with crimes that automatically brought them to adult court. In its findings, the state supreme court upheld the convictions of both young men but ruled that the presiding judge had discretion to give juveniles lesser sentences than the law mandates for adults.

Changes Under SB 6160

Under SB 6160 first-degree robbery, drive-by shooting, some first-degree burglary cases, and any violent offense where the suspect was armed with a gun are no longer offenses eligible for auto decline. However, the charge of murder, manslaughter, first-degree child rape, kidnapping, or first-degree assault can still trigger auto decline.

The law also allows for longer sentences within the juvenile system for youth charged with first-degree robbery or drive-by shooting, and because of the longer sentence, extends the length of time a juvenile can remain in custody or under court supervision from 21 to 25 years of age. Sentencing may include an extra year for having a firearm, with an extra three months if the crime is gang related.

Additionally, the new law be monitored in its implementation and outcomes, with an assessment due to the legislature in 2023. 

Question? Comments?

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MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Leah LaCivita

Leah joined MRSC as a Communications Coordinator in the fall of 2016 and manages MRSC’s blog and webinar training program, in addition to developing website content.