A House proposal to prosecute and jail hundreds of violent juveniles as adults is faltering, and Republican legislative leaders are searching for ways to get the measure through the Senate and past the governor.
There also is talk of finding the necessary votes to send the issue to the people in the form of a referendum, if all else fails.
“There isn’t agreement on what to do, but there is discussion,” Sen. Jeanine Long, R-Mill Creek, said Tuesday after a hearing on the bill, HB3900. Long herself has reservations about the measure, partly because it won’t survive the governor’s desk and partly because it may be too severe.
Gov. Gary Locke made it clear last week that he would veto the measure if it contained a provision requiring that any 16- or 17-year-old charged with a violent crime automatically be tried as an adult and confined in an adult jail. Locke considers the approach extreme and unnecessary. Such crimes include robbery, assault and arson.
Senate Law and Justice Chairwoman Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said legislative leaders met privately Tuesday to discuss the measure’s prospects and possible ways to save it.
“There are several scenarios that could come up,” Roach said. They range from finding middle ground to sending it to the voters, where Republicans feel it would pass.
She and Long both refused to discuss any specifics that may be on the table.
But Long said, “The bottom line is we all want a bill, and if possible, we want one that we can get past Gary Locke.”
The bill cleared the House more than a week ago over objections from Democrats, who said the Republican majority was dumping kids who could be saved.
But backers said the juvenile justice system has become a turnstile for violent 16- and 17-year-olds who can be contained only through tougher treatment in adult courts and prisons.
The measure also sets tough new sentences for youngsters charged and convicted in the juvenile justice system, a provision backed by all parties and the governor. That element of the bill, plus another containing new tools to steer very young offenders from a life of crime, are good reasons to save it, Long said.
Locke contends automatic prosecution and sentencing of hundreds of juveniles as adults is unnecessary.
He argues that state law already allows prosecutors to send the most serious offenders into adult courts, and also allows them to try other young offenders as adults after a special hearing to determine if they deserve the treatment.