I am a retired King County Superior Court judge, writing in support of Engrossed House Bill 1324, now being considered by the Washington State Senate. The proposal would end the practice of automatically sentencing people to longer prison terms because of crimes they committed as children.
The current law is based on the 1990s myth of the irredeemably violent “superpredator” child, a term applied disproportionately to Black kids and to other persons of color. Brain science showing that juveniles tend to have less judgment and maturity than adults has since debunked the myth.
As a long-serving former superior court judge, I have seen firsthand the racial disproportionality and deleterious, unjust effects of automatically lengthening a person’s sentence because of crimes committed as a youth.
Here’s how the current law played out in one of my cases. There were young men, 19 and 20, whose struggling, hardworking but overwhelmed immigrant parents were unable to keep them out of the gangs that dominated their neighborhood. They stupidly got into a dangerous shootout with another gang, resulting in an opposing gang member getting shot in the leg. By then, the two had racked up many prior offenses as teenagers, and their gang activities had understandably caught the attention of law enforcement.
The prosecutor in my case charged each with multiple offenses and sentencing enhancements which, together with their juvenile criminal records, resulted in mandatory 43-year and 50-year prison sentences.
Recognizing the injustice and senselessness of these nearly life sentences, I was able to later revisit their cases (because of an anomaly in the law) and reduce their prison terms to 20 years each. But the vast majority of those similarly situated are stuck serving sentences that were automatically lengthened because of offenses committed as youths.
Teens and young adults, as we know from recent brain science, tend to make poor decisions because of impulsivity, peer pressure, and difficulty appreciating consequences. Gang involvement, as in the case of my two young men, is the quintessential juvenile criminal conduct. Gang activity is largely driven by peer influence and the desire to belong; as well as by poverty, lack of social services, and the effects of racism and disinvestment in minority neighborhoods.
Courts recognize the reality that “children are different,” with malleable minds that are not yet developed, making them less culpable for their behavior. What adult doesn’t know that teenagers are immature, poor at making choices, and will likely “grow out of it?”
The Minority and Justice Commission strongly supports ESB 1324. The Washington Supreme Court created the Commission to address racial disparities and inequities in our legal system, jails, and prisons. The Department of Corrections reports that relative to the overall prison population, Black and American Indian and Alaska Native people are significantly overrepresented among those with a juvenile felony record. These racial disparities should be a concern to all Washingtonians, especially judges.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, in 2020 the Superior Court Judges Association joined the Washington Supreme Court justices in acknowledging the role of courts and judges in creating systemic racial injustice. Judges collectively committed to dismantling systemic racism. ESB 1324 is a step toward making good on that promise.
No doubt, ESB 1324 will result in resentencing hearings, estimated in number between 800 and 1,500. The associated costs to our superior courts would warrant an additional legislative appropriation. But these small administrative concerns should not outweigh the moral imperative of correcting past injustices and fixing a broken system.
Theresa Doyle is a retired King County Superior Court Judge and Co-chair of the Washington Minority and Justice Commission Legislation and Rules Committee.