Washington Governor Signs Bill into Law that Significantly Limits the Number of Youth Who Can be Transferred into Adult Court

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a bill (SB 6160) today, which, among other things, restricts the use of “auto-decline” in Washington State. Under Washington law, 16 or 17 year old youth who are charged with certain offenses are automatically sent to adult court for adjudication of their cases. This process is known as “auto-decline” because the jurisdiction of the juvenile court is “automatically declined,” and the youth is not given the opportunity to appear before a judge to determine whether the case would be more appropriately addressed in the juvenile court.

Washington State initially adopted auto-decline policies in 1994 during a period of “tough on crime” measures that embraced the now debunked myth of the juvenile “superpredator.” In 1997, the Legislature doubled down on this myth, increasing the number of auto-declinable offenses to include crimes such as first-degree robbery and first-degree burglary. These amendments resulted in a significant increase in the number of youth who were subject to auto-decline, and have greatly contributed to the alarming levels of racial disproportionality among youth who are transferred into adult court. 

“Established adolescent brain science requires us to treat children charged and convicted of crimes differently from their adult counterparts,” said Nick Allen, a directing attorney at Columbia Legal Services. “This bill moves us in that direction. The legislature is beginning to reject the basis for which auto-decline was created, and instead recognize that the rehabilitative setting of the juvenile court system is the more appropriate environment for youth affected by this bill.”

This bill begins to correct these problems by making most of the offenses that were added to the auto-decline list in 1997 no longer subject to auto-decline. Instead, youth 16 or 17 years old who are charged with these offenses will remain in the juvenile system. Over the last two years, proponents of this reform, including Representative Noel Frame (D-Seattle) and Senators Jeannie Darneille (D-Tacoma) and Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) pushed for revisions to the auto-decline statute. This legislation will likely affect hundreds of young people each year.

While SB 6160 keeps more young people in the juvenile court system, it also extends juvenile jurisdiction for youth adjudicated delinquent of most of the offenses addressed to age 25. Additionally, it amends the juvenile sentencing grid to allow for longer sentences for youth adjudicated delinquent of these offenses. Of particular concern is that the bill also creates two new mandatory sentencing enhancements: a 12-month firearm enhancement and a 90-day gang enhancement. These provisions are troublesome, as they have the potential to increase juvenile sentence lengths and racial disproportionality. We also believe that sentencing enhancements for youth in the juvenile system could be unconstitutional. For these reasons we requested a veto of these enhancements, but did not succeed in this request.

“As a whole, this bill is bittersweet,” said Allen. “While the rollback of auto-declinable offenses and extension of juvenile jurisdiction are innovative and groundbreaking, the increase in sentence length and enhancements are extreme and regressive policies, especially when considering that there is no evidence that these types of provisions contribute to the rehabilitation of youth or increase public safety.”

Ongoing assessment of the bill’s impact is also required, as it contains a study provision requiring the legislature to monitor implementation and outcomes, with a report due in 2023.

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