Will new state law strain juvenile justice system? Yakima County officials keeping watch

YAKIMA, Wash. — Proponents of a state law that keeps certain violent teenage offenders in juvenile court say it offers the youths a chance at rehabilitation.

But Yakima County prosecutors and juvenile court staff are waiting to see how much strain will be put on a juvenile justice system they say is just getting by.

“I don’t know what the resource drain will be,” said Candi Shute, administrator with the Yakima County Juvenile Court. “It’s hard to predict how many cases will be seen.”

A check of records from the past three years shows that had Senate Bill 6160 been in effect, most of the juvenile offenders who were automatically tried as adults in Yakima County would have remained in the juvenile system, some until their 25th birthdays.

Despite this, the county’s public defender said that if prosecutors and judges follow the spirit of the new law, it could reduce his workload by limiting the times he has to attend discretionary hearings to argue why teenagers should not be tried as adults.

In 1994, the Legislature passed the first bill that automatically sent certain juvenile offenders to Superior Court to be tried as adults. Known as “auto-decline” because juvenile courts automatically declined jurisdiction, the law covered first- and second-degree murder, manslaughter and first-degree assault.

In 1997, the law was expanded to other violent offenses, including first-degree robbery and first-degree burglary, as part of an effort to rein in what were described as “superpredator” offenders.

In some cases not covered by auto-decline, such as sexual assaults, prosecutors could ask the judge to consider sending the case to Superior Court.

But in recent years, appellate courts have ruled it unconstitutional in many cases to treat juveniles the same as adults. The main reason is differences in brain development, which led to calls to rescind auto-decline laws, said Joe Brusic, Yakima County prosecuting attorney.

SB 6160, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in late March and slated to go into effect this summer, was not a surprise to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which saw support growing over the past two years, Brusic said.

The only question prosecutors had was how much were they willing to give up in regard to auto-decline statutes.

“We wanted murder and manslaughter cases to be tried as adults rather than juveniles,” Brusic said. “That was more important than keeping everything.”

If prosecutors had insisted on leaving the law intact, lawmakers would likely have rescinded it in its entirety, Brusic said. He described the current law as a compromise.

Under the new statute, sponsored by Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, and Sens. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, and Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, certain offenses — including first-degree robbery, drive-by shooting, first-degree burglary and any violent offense where the defendant is alleged to have been armed with a gun — move back to juvenile court for offenders age 16 or 17 at the time of the crime.

“Established adolescent brain science requires us to treat children charged and convicted of crimes differently from their adult counterparts,” Nick Allen, a directing attorney with Columbia Legal Services, said in a news release. “This bill moves us in that direction.”

Homicide charges would remain with adult court, as would first-degree child rape, first-degree assault and kidnapping.

Prosecutors have the right to argue that some violent offenders in juvenile court should be tried as adults if the offender meets certain age requirements and is charged with certain felonies.

The law also allows for longer sentences for violent crimes within the juvenile system — as long as five years for offenders found guilty of first-degree robbery or drive-by shooting. Offenders can also get an extra year for having a firearm, with an extra three months if the crime is gang-related.

With the longer sentences, juveniles can remain in custody or under court supervision until their 25th birthdays. Normally, juvenile court jurisdiction ends when the offender turns 21.

In the past three years, there were 25 juveniles in Yakima County who were automatically tried as adults, with charges ranging from second-degree murder to second-degree assault. They represented 1.3 percent of the cases that were heard in juvenile court from 2015 through 2017, according to court records.

Of those offenders, only nine would have been automatically tried as adults under the new law.

In noting the costs of the new law, legislative fiscal analysts said it would likely result in the number of juvenile offenders held until age 25 to increase by 48 statewide by 2027, but the analysts could not predict the cost of handling them in the courts. They anticipated that the state would need to construct three new juvenile holding centers.

The analysts suggested that there could be some savings by reducing the number of jury trials in superior courts. Juvenile courts do not use juries.

In Yakima County, Shute and Brusic said the costs are impossible to pin down as the number and type of cases coming through the court are hard to predict.

Shute’s keeping her expenses within budget under the current caseload, but that usually means leaving positions unfilled when possible. The county budgeted $5.2 million toward juvenile court and its services in the 2018 budget.

Court staff and prosecutors were to meet Tuesday to discuss the new law and its potential effects, Shute said.

In the county’s Office of Assigned Counsel, which provides legal representation for people who cannot afford lawyers, Executive Director Paul Kelley said the new law would ease his attorneys’ caseloads. A juvenile defendant being tried as an adult is going to require more time and effort than one who is being adjudicated as a juvenile with a goal of rehabilitation, he noted.

Kelley said that if prosecutors want a youth tried as an adult, it would mean more work for defense attorneys, as they must bring in experts to argue that a teen would be better served through rehabilitation than punishment.

Auto-decline hearings “are the most expert-intensive cases we handle (in juvenile court),” Kelley said. “We’re talking about the youth, the kid and trying to figure out how we are going to affect the rest of their lives.”

Brusic said his office will work with the resources it has, but he said his prosecutors will not ease up, even if the case remains in juvenile court.

“We’re not going to stop being aggressive in the charging of these cases,” Brusic said. “We’ll find the resources.”

Allen, with Columbia Legal Services, warned that the new law’s enhanced penalties could target minority youths more.

“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,” Allen said.

The law requires the Legislature to monitor how it is implemented, with a first report due in 2023.