Due to the increased use of community-based programs, Kings County, Washington, prosecutors are sending fewer juveniles to adult court than ever before.
Several U.S. Supreme Court rulings since 2005 have stated that juveniles are “prone to immaturity and impetuosity, [and] often fail to appreciate risks and consequences” and gave discretion to judges to tailor their sentences for juveniles and not adhere to strict sentencing guidelines.
According to Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s juvenile-justice report, in 2016 police referred 67 juvenile cases in King County to prosecutors involving 16 and 17-years-old juveniles who were accused of violent crimes.
These crimes were: first degree robbery: 43.3%, murder: 26.7%, drive-by shooting: 16.7%, first degree assault: 6.7% and first-degree burglary: 3.3%. Of these, 34 were charged in juvenile court and 30 were sent to superior (adult) court.
Out of the 30 cases sent to adult court, the majority involved African American youths (43.3%), followed by Hispanic (26.7%), Asian/Pacific Islander (16.7%), and then Caucasian (6.7%) and Native America (3.3%).
King County prosecutors have broad discretion to decide which court the juveniles who commit these violent acts will be prosecuted and how lenient the court is with sentencing.
To decrease racial disparity that is apparent in Satterberg’s report, the county has been successfully using community-based programs to work with these youths outside the court system and decrease the number of cases filed against juveniles.
One such program is the weekend workshops in the 180 Program, which began in 2011 after conversations Satterberg had with Pastor Doug Wheeler. Held monthly and funded by the prosecutor’s office, the program has helped 1,500 youths avoid charges.
Successful completion of the program means that the misdemeanor charges will be waived before they are filed with the court system. In fact, there were 1,600 cases filed in 2016, 16% less than the year before, compared to 8,000 cases twenty years ago.
Using Satterberg’s report as well as individual court records of the cases, the King County Bar are tailoring prison sentences of juveniles whose cases get sent to adult court.
Automatically sending these juveniles into the adult system does increase recidivism, according to the Washington Institute for Public Policy.
When combined with community custody or supervision, this approach has greatly reduced length of sentences that otherwise would have been much longer.
There is growing support among Washington lawmakers to decrease the number of crimes eligible for automatic jurisdiction in adult court. However, there are risks to being too lenient as the court will lose any jurisdiction over the minor when he or she reaches 21 years of age.
“Cases should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and even violent crimes should not be auto-declined to adult court,” said attorney Stephen Hamilton. “Other factors such as the juvenile’s age and case history should be considered; we should help these juveniles see a better future for themselves rather than automatically sending them to jail, where they will learn to be better criminals.”