10/07/2011

Kid Crime, Adult Time By Kevin Taylor When the Legislature convenes next month, it will hear pleas to reform laws that sentence some juvenile offenders as adults ... pleas coming, for a change, from prosecutors. The Washington Attorney General’s office, in conjunction with county prosecutors, is seeking longer sentences for some teens if crimes involve gang ties or guns. Defenders and others who say it is wrong to send youths through adult court say they will continue to fight for reform, but have no specific bills to propose yet. In our report in September, The Inlander explored the issue of so-called “auto-declines,” where 16- and 17-year-olds who commit certain crimes are automatically charged as adults. The concept swept the nation in the 1990s amid headlines about school shooters and violent youth gangs, designed to create longer sentences in adult prisons for young monsters who committed violent acts. In recent years, compelling evidence into brain development has begun to reverse this trend, showing adult punishments are not suited for youths, and often do not work. Our story also found a sort of mission-drift, with the state’s list of auto-decline crimes growing longer over the years, teens being pressured to take plea deals that leave them with indelible adult felony records and an unknown number of juveniles serving adult time in county jails, where the sentences are typically less than a year. “It has become abundantly clear that there is a lack of information about how many kids have been auto-declined to both jails and the [Department of Corrections],” says Sandy Mullins, the new director of the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission. Her agency is looking at tweaking the standard judgment and sentencing form to be able to better track how many juveniles are serving adult time, or how many are charged as adults but then remanded to juvenile detention, she says. Chris Johnson, policy director for the AG’s office, says he’s been working on gang enhancements to auto-decline sentencing since 2006, when it was identified as a priority for local law enforcement and prosecutors around the state. If, for example, a felony assault is gang-related, it could bring the young offender an extra five years in prison. “It is very important to point out that in the state of Washington, it is not a criminal act to be a member of a gang, unlike California,” Johnson says. Johnson says the proposed bill, which got an airing with some legislators Dec. 10, must walk a fine line to avoid targeting people solely by association or race. He sees harsh early penalties acting as a deterrent along the lines of “scared straight.” And, Johnson notes, the bill comes with provisions for diversion and deterrence programs — which, he admits, could be vulnerable in a Legislature facing about $4 billion funding shortfall. Youth advocacy groups such as Team Child and the Columbia Legal Foundation continue to highlight national research into brain development that shows adult punishment for juveniles can actually backfire and create more crimes. Efforts to prune back the list of auto-decline crimes —and to have the adult-charging decisions made by judges instead of prosecutors — are expected to continue.


Kid Crime, Adult Time

By Kevin Taylor
When the Legislature convenes next month, it will hear pleas to reform laws that sentence some juvenile offenders as adults ... pleas coming, for a change, from prosecutors.
The Washington Attorney General’s office, in conjunction with county prosecutors, is seeking longer sentences for some teens if crimes involve gang ties or guns.
Defenders and others who say it is wrong to send youths through adult court say they will continue to fight for reform, but have no specific bills to propose yet.
In our report in September, The Inlander explored the issue of so-called “auto-declines,” where 16- and 17-year-olds who commit certain crimes are automatically charged as adults.
The concept swept the nation in the 1990s amid headlines about school shooters and violent youth gangs, designed to create longer sentences in adult prisons for young monsters who committed violent acts. In recent years, compelling evidence into brain development has begun to reverse this trend, showing adult punishments are not suited for youths, and often do not work.
Our story also found a sort of mission-drift, with the state’s list of auto-decline crimes growing longer over the years, teens being pressured to take plea deals that leave them with indelible adult felony records and an unknown number of juveniles serving adult time in county jails, where the sentences are typically less than a year.
“It has become abundantly clear that there is a lack of information about how many kids have been auto-declined to both jails and the [Department of Corrections],” says Sandy Mullins, the new director of the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission. Her agency is looking at tweaking the standard judgment and sentencing form to be able to better track how many juveniles are serving adult time, or how many are charged as adults but then remanded to juvenile detention, she says.
Chris Johnson, policy director for the AG’s office, says he’s been working on gang enhancements to auto-decline sentencing since 2006, when it was identified as a priority for local law enforcement and prosecutors around the state. If, for example, a felony assault is gang-related, it could bring the young offender an extra five years in prison.
“It is very important to point out that in the state of Washington, it is not a criminal act to be a member of a gang, unlike California,” Johnson says.
Johnson says the proposed bill, which got an airing with some legislators Dec. 10, must walk a fine line to avoid targeting people solely by association or race. He sees harsh early penalties acting as a deterrent along the lines of “scared straight.” And, Johnson notes, the bill comes with provisions for diversion and deterrence programs — which, he admits, could be vulnerable in a Legislature facing about $4 billion funding shortfall.
Youth advocacy groups such as Team Child and the Columbia Legal Foundation continue to highlight national research into brain development that shows adult punishment for juveniles can actually backfire and create more crimes.
Efforts to prune back the list of auto-decline crimes —and to have the adult-charging decisions made by judges instead of prosecutors — are expected to continue.
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