For a moment, there was hope. Seven years into a 45-year sentence, Redhawk Monte had seen countless politicians, activists, and jailhouse lawyers come and go, all selling different versions of the same dream—the system is changing, and there's a chance of going home. Their promises always came to nothing. Over time, Monte lost faith that change was possible. But last January, when a legislative bill about juvenile court dispositions passed the first chamber of the Washington Legislature, he let himself believe again. 

"We watched the hearings on TV, and these legislators were talking about how the juvenile system targeted Indigenous children," said Monte, a member of the Snoqualmie tribe who is currently incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington.

"They were talking about us. They're finally admitting they've been funneling us into the juvenile system and destroying our lives and they're saying they want to make it right."

Monte was ten years old when he first went to juvenile hall. Arrested for shoplifting model cars from a hobby store, he was charged with a felony. "They were the little cars that had tiny motors in them and they cost more than two hundred dollars, which is the threshold to go from a misdemeanor to a felony. I had to do a month in juvenile. It sounds like nothing now, but when you're ten and you're scared it's a big deal."

In 2017, his juvenile shoplifting charge, together with other arrests from Monte's childhood on the Tulalip reservation, was used to extend the prison term he is now serving. "Thirty years later, they added eight years to my sentence because of that arrest as a ten-year-old."

HB 1324, the bill Monte was following last January, could have stripped those additional years from his sentence.

The bill aimed to end what was known as the juvenile points law—a statute that automatically converted juvenile dispositions into criminal history "points" used to lengthen adult prison sentences. But it was also a formal recognition of historic injustices, and an effort to correct them by putting those whose sentences were increased back in front of a sentencing judge.

The bill's prime sponsor, Rep. David Hackney, a Democrat and former federal prosecutor, described the shortcomings of the juvenile points law and made a case for retroactivity when he introduced HB 1324 at a House Community Safety Committee hearing last year.

"Juvenile proceedings are not criminal proceedings," said Rep. Hackney. "These are not criminal convictions," and to later use them as criminal history "is simply not fair."

Children with few resources are the ones who typically end up in juvenile court, said Rep. Hackney, and their immaturity, impulsiveness, and lack of judgment are often exploited to obtain dispositions, as "juveniles are urged to plead to certain charges to get out of juvenile sooner."

Rep. Hackney stressed the need for retroactivity.

"It's the right thing to do," he said, as a remedy for people who have already had an unfair law used against them and are serving extreme sentences as a result.

Along with Monte, most of the Native American community at Washington Corrections Center closely followed the bill as it progressed through the Legislature.

Hector Ortiz, a member of the Spokane tribe, said the mood was initially cynical. "It's been hundreds of years of deception, abuse, massacres. Why would we trust them?"

Ortiz—whose 30-year sentence is in part a product of the juvenile points law—said the government has "always looked at Indigenous people as intellectually inferior alcoholics. We're unfit to run our own affairs and they have to manage us. We're unfit to raise our children so they have to take them from us. First it was the boarding school system, and that became foster homes and the juvenile system. Juvenile points are in line with that. People didn't think they'd let it go."

"Indigenous people are extremely hesitant to believe the government will act in their best interest," said Monte, "but this year, we got excited. They were specifically talking about Native American issues and we thought they were actually going to do something to help us."

Testimony at public hearings bolstered their confidence. Directly impacted community members and professional advocates slammed Washington's juvenile points law as a racist relic of the so-called Superpredator Era, a period in the 1990s during which legislatures in nearly every state enacted laws explicitly designed to incarcerate huge numbers of children.

Those laws created unprecedentedly broad racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, and sentencing, and the theories they were premised on have since been debunked and repudiated by their authors—but the laws nonetheless remain on the books in many jurisdictions. Throughout the hearings, witnesses peppered legislators with intensely personal accounts of the extensive harm the juvenile system inflicts on Indigenous children, and detailed the way that harm pursues them into adulthood.

A Warm Springs tribal member, Dwuan Conroy, viewed the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives as a breakthrough. "It's not something you hear in sentencing reform discussions," said Conroy, who is serving 24 years at Washington Corrections Center. "Native kids have been brutalized by mass incarceration for generations. No one really talks about that, but the statistics are there. If you doubt that the system is racist and that juvenile courts are disproportionately used against Natives, you need to take a look at the numbers."

The numbers reveal an obscenely unbalanced system. Though Native Americans make up less than two percent of Washington's population, they are six percent of the state's prison population. Close to half of Washington's incarcerated Natives have a prior juvenile court disposition, the highest percentage of any group. Many of their sentences were extended by years or decades as a result of the juvenile points law.

Statistics like these and heated calls for change propelled the bill through the House. That's when things changed. In the Senate, HB 1324 needed to pass only the Law and Justice Committee before it could move on to a final vote of the full chamber. But the night before the committee was scheduled to vote, a key Democratic member, Sen. Jesse Salomon, filed a surprise amendment striking retroactivity from the bill. Sen. Salomon insisted at a committee executive session the following day that the bill would fail if retroactivity were left in place.

The senator's claim puzzled those who had been lobbying for the bill and extensively discussing it with legislators, and seemed to ignore what had occurred in the House, where all but four Democrats voted to pass HB 1324. Sen. Salomon failed to explain why he believed Senate Democrats—representing the very same districts as the House Democrats who voted for the bill—would refuse to vote as their counterparts had just days earlier. Regardless of these inconsistencies, the amendment was adopted. The new, non-retroactive version of the bill advanced.

As the bill came up for a final vote on the Senate floor, Sen. Noel Frame, a Democrat who championed HB 1324, stood to face her party and took unnamed Democratic senators to task for gutting the bill.

"If we are taking the step to recognize the harm these laws have caused, we have to take the extra step of undoing the harm," said Sen. Frame. The juvenile points law "has resulted in extreme racial disproportionality in our legal system. Why wouldn't we go that extra step and fix that?"

With anger touching her voice, Sen. Frame challenged her colleagues to join her in visiting institutions and meet the prisoners who were being cut out.

"The people we are talking about today are human beings," said Sen. Frame. "Thirteen hundred human beings. People. Thirteen hundred mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandparents. They have people who love them and want the opportunity to see them come home."

The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. To many Native Americans it was a slap in the face.

"What this showed Indigenous tribes in Washington," said Monte, "is they should continue to not trust the government or the people who say they represent us."

"If you know the law was about superpredators, and you acknowledge what that meant was children of color," said Conroy, "why are you fighting so hard to perpetuate the damage it caused? You admit it was racist, that's why you're eliminating it, but you want to leave people behind that you already used it against? It's crazy."

In December, Democratic Rep. Chris Stearns, one of the few Native Americans in the Legislature, introduced HB 2065, a bill that would make HB 1324 retroactive. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians has come out in support, and Sen. Frame plans to sponsor a matching bill in the senate when it convenes next week.

The Native American community at Washington Corrections Center will be watching.

"These guys have to step up and do what's right," said Monte. "They've got to take responsibility for the tragedies they've been a part of. Every time they took land or broke treaties or committed atrocities, they've never come back and made it right. I don't care about the speeches and the performances. What matters is passing the bill and getting Indigenous people home with their families."

Kevin Light-Roth, 39, is currently incarcerated at a Washington State prison, where he works to organize the prison community around legislative bills. He is a regular contributor to the Information for a Change legislative update page on Facebook, and a member of Empowerment Avenue, a collective for incarcerated writers and artists. His writing has been published in the HeraldNet, The Progressive, and The Appeal.