Public Safety & Justice

No More Life Sentences for Child Criminals in Washington State

by | March 31, 2014

By Jordan Schrader

Washington State will no longer consign killers younger than 16 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A law signed Friday by Gov. Jay Inslee makes them eligible for parole after 25 years, while leaving the decision up to a judge for 16- and 17-year-olds.

For both age groups, the law abolishes automatic life sentences for aggravated murder, responding to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that automatic life sentences for youths amount to cruel and unusual punishment, which is barred by the U.S. Constitution.

More than two dozen inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as youths will return to court for new sentences.

"This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free ticket," said Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who was relieved at the new clarity for sentences thrown into doubt by the court decision. "These cases will be looked at individually. Prosecutors will make recommendations. Judges will impose sentences."

One South Sound prisoner affected is Brian Bassett of McCleary, who was convicted in the 1995 murder of his parents, Michael and Wendy Bassett, and 5-year-old brother Austin. He was 16 at the time.

The Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 vote, that life sentences can't be automatic for people younger than 18.

Judges could still sentence youths to life without parole in rare cases, the court ruled, but they must consider their age and related factors, such as the influence of parents and peers.

The court cited research showing adolescent brains aren't fully developed when it comes to functions such as impulse control and avoiding risk.

"Science is now confirming what Avis and Hertz have known for years," said Bob Cooper, a lobbyist for defense attorneys, referring to restrictions on young drivers of rental cars. "The brain under age 25 is different than a fully developed adult brain."

Cooper was disappointed that the law still contains the possibility of life without parole for 16- and 17-year-olds. But he has hopes around a task force created by the law to examine how juveniles are transferred to adult court and how they are sentenced there.

The new law, originally proposed by Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, also offers the hope of early release for prisoners sentenced to lengthy but not lifelong sentences for juvenile crimes.

In most cases, they will now be able to seek review after 20 years from the state parole board, which must release them unless it decides they would be more likely than not to commit new crimes. Other bills signed into law Friday by Inslee:

  • Prohibit gun possession by people who are subject to many kinds of restraining orders that have deemed the person a threat to harm a partner or child.
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  • Prevent a prisoner convicted of a serious violent crime from suing his victims or their families in most cases without a court's permission.
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  • Require court-appointed attorneys for foster children once their parents' rights to them have been terminated for six months.
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  • Extend eligibility for foster care to youths to age 21 if they work at least 80 hours a month.

(c)2014 The News Tribune

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