Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life in prison for crimes like aggravated first-degree murder is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, and thus a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
"Youth is more than a chronological fact," the justices wrote in the majority opinion of Miller v. Alabama last June. "It is a time of immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness, and recklessness. It is a moment and position in life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage. And its signature qualities are all transient."
The ruling left 29 states, including Washington, with the task of shoring up state laws to align with the federal edict this legislative session or else face a slew of lawsuits from incarcerated men whose life-without-parole sentences are no longer considered justifiable. (There are currently 30 men serving mandatory life sentences in our state for crimes committed in their youth.)
"The fact that we haven’t sentenced anyone to this in over a decade proves that Washington has started to think very differently about juveniles and their culpability when they commit crimes," explains Jake Faescini, whose been lobbying legislators on this issue. "We feel they have better chances for successful rehabilitation—that if you’re a juvenile, you should have the chance to prove that you’ve changed and that you can be released."
Two bills introduced in the state legislature are currently battling to redefine the mandatory life sentencing for kids under 18, and they take two very different approaches to changing the law.
SB 5064, written by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA) and introduced by Senators Hargrove and Kline, takes the more conservative approach. The bill would:
• Still give judges the freedom to sentence juveniles to life in prison at their discretion.
• Replace life sentences with a minimum 30-year sentence (after which, they'd be eligible for parole).
• Allow "virtual lifers," or juveniles serving multiple aggregate sentences, to petition the courts for release after a minimum of 30 years in jail.
Social justice advocates that the Senate bill doesn't go far enough to give juveniles a fair chance at rehabilitation and reintegration in society. "The court didn’t uphold discretionary life-without-parole sentencing," argues Nick Allen, a lawyer with Columbia Legal Services, a non-profit that provides legal services for low-income people. "We don’t think we should be making decisions about kids, saying that they can never get out and be productive members of society."
CLS has drafted its own bill, HB 1338, that takes a more lenient approach to juvenile sentencing. The bill, which currently has 17 co-sponsors in the House, would:
• Completely abolish life without parole for juveniles.
• Replace life sentences with a minimum 20-25 year sentence (after which they'd be eligible for parole), and a maximum 35-year sentence (after which point, they'd be released).
• Allows "virtual lifers" to petition courts for release after a minimum of 20 years in jail.
Both bills are currently working their way through committees. HB 1338 has a public hearing scheduled for February 25 at 1:30 p.m. in the House Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government, while SB 5064 has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee for a second reading (the committee has until March 13 to act on the bill).
If both bills fail to pass, the issue will be kicked to the courts to decide. So the question before legislators is, does Washington state believe that life sentences should be taken off the table for all juvenile offenders, no matter how violent the crime? Should all kids have a chance at rehabilitation and redemption?
Its citizens seem to think so. Nick Straley, another lawyer with CLS, points to a recent survey conducted by Western Washington University found that 84 percent of Washington residents thought that juveniles serving life sentences should be paroled after 25 years.
"Some crimes are heinous," says Falescini. "No one’s saying that they aren’t. But if you’re a juvenile, you should have the possibility of proving that you’ve changed and that you can be released."