A legal aid group has filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families unlawfully transferred three young men convicted of murder when they were teenagers from juvenile correctional facilities to adult prisons.
The lawsuit, filed last week in Thurston County by Columbia Legal Services, claims the department transferred the three men, who were 22, 21 and 18 at the time of the transfers, to adult prisons without due process protections, including legal representation, advance notice of a proposed transfer and a hearing.
DCYF also failed to maintain clear records of why they were transferred, the lawsuit alleges.
By state law, the three should have been held under the jurisdiction of the agency until they were 25.
While the suit only names the incarcerated men as plaintiffs, Columbia Legal Services estimates at least 20 other people were transferred under similar circumstances.
It’s likely more incarcerated individuals younger than 25 were transferred to adult prisons because DCYF oversees all juvenile rehabilitative facilities in the state, said Laurel Jones, staff attorney for Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that advocates for low-income and marginalized people.
DCYF maintains that the transfers were lawful, according to the lawsuit. When reached for comment, a department spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations citing the pending lawsuit. DCYF also declined to comment generally on how the agency’s transfers to adult prisons work and the reasons why someone younger than 25 may be transferred.
The petitioners named in the lawsuit include brothers Jerome and James Taafulisia, who were tried and convicted as adults in King County Superior Court in 2020 for fatally shooting two people and critically injuring three others in a Seattle homeless encampment within the sprawling “Jungle” that was later shut down by the city. The brothers were each sentenced to 40 years in prison when they were 16 and 17, respectively.
The third petitioner, Diante Pellum, was 14 when he and a friend lured another teen to a Federal Way Taco Bell to rob him of marijuana and then fatally shot him. He also was convicted in King County adult court and sentenced to 16 ½ years in prison.
State law known as “JR-to-25” holds that defendants who were convicted in adult court of serious crimes that occurred when they were juveniles should remain in juvenile rehabilitation facilities up until age 25. At that point, they are to be transferred to adult correctional facilities to serve out any time they have remaining on their sentence.
The Taafulisia brothers and Pellum were transferred from Green Hill School, a DCYF facility in Chehalis that is known to “routinely” transfer young people to adult prisons with no warning, due process or opportunity for them to challenge the transfers, Columbia Legal Services claims.
The 2018 law that extended juvenile incarceration for serious crimes from age 21 to 25 recognized that young people behind bars need access to education, programming, therapeutic services and a higher degree of safety, Jones said. Adult prisons aren’t focused on rehabilitation and don’t offer the same kind of programming juvenile centers do that is focused on skill building, therapeutic services and transitioning out of the system, she added.
Neuroscience has shown that adolescent brains aren’t fully developed until age 25, prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to issue several rulings since 2005 that consider juveniles less culpable than adults for criminal behavior. Science has also noted that adolescents possess a higher inclination for change and rehabilitation than adults.
“Focusing on the rehabilitation of these young folks for as much time as we can is really critical for success upon release,” Jones said.
In 2018, legislative leaders noted that transferring youths and young adults to adult prisons was “not effective in reducing future criminal behavior,” and actually made them more likely to engage in criminal activity once out of prison than people who were placed in juvenile correctional facilities.
Legislative leaders noted the 2018 law’s potential to “move the needle” on recidivism rates and racial disparities present in Washington’s sentencing. Further, in 2021 a Task Force on Race and Justice presented findings that people of color are subject to longer sentences and fewer options for nonprison sentencing alternatives for similar crimes than whites.
While the state law says DCYF may transfer someone to adult prison if they pose a “serious and continuing threat” to others’ safety, DCYF kept “virtually” no record of the reasons for the transfers, the lawsuit alleges.
The failure to create those records will likely have a negative impact on early release requests because the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, which oversees prison releases, might presume the transfer was due to the individual being categorized as “dangerous,” according to the suit.
The lawsuit requests the court declares the plaintiffs were wrongfully transferred to an adult prison, and enter a permanent injunction requiring DCYF to stop transferring youths to adult prisons without following proper steps as outlined under state law, among other things. It also asks the three men be returned to DCYF facilities until they’re 25.
Two other youths currently in a juvenile correctional facility were also named in the lawsuit as facing potential unlawful transfer to an adult prison due to DCYF’s previous actions, according to the lawsuit.
“These transfers take cruel advantage of the likelihood (Juvenile Rehabilitation) residents won’t be able to seek justice for themselves,” the statement read.