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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bill to require Washington courts to try minors based on their age at the time of the crime awaits Inslee’s signature

Washington State Rep. Julio Cortes, D-Everett, stands in his legislative office at the state capitol on Feb. 21, 2024. Cortes was the prime sponsor on House Bill 2217, a piece of legislation he says will bring equality for children who come into contact with the criminal justice system.  (Ellen Dennis / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Two children of the exact same age who are charged with the exact same crime in Washington often face drastically different punishments.

It all comes down to the day prosecutors file charges in court.

But that could soon change if a bill passed by the Washington Legislature this week is signed by Gov. Jay Inslee. The proposed change to state law would require defendants be tried in the court corresponding to the age they were when they allegedly committed a crime.

Currently, a 17-year-old who commits a crime in Washington but doesn’t get officially charged until after they turn 18 is charged as an adult. But if the prosecutor had been faster, filing charges before the teen turned 18, the accused would have been charged as a minor and faced significantly shorter time behind bars.

State Rep. Julio Cortes, D-Everett, introduced the bill in an effort to make the court system fairer for children. If signed into law, Cortes said his bill will also help boost community safety and housing security.

“If I’m a youth, I’m tried as an adult and I can’t seal my record, finding an apartment and a job – two of the major reasons why folks become homeless – is extremely difficult,” Cortes said. “One of the goals of this bill is to make sure that children who make mistakes don’t end up as homeless adults.”

Under the proposed law, children found guilty for first-degree murder, second-degree murder and first-degree rape who turn 18 before they are charged would not automatically qualify to be tried in youth court. Instead, the court with jurisdiction over the county where the child was charged will decide whether they are tried in youth or adult court.

The bill won’t cost the state any money to implement, according to a fiscal committee.

It costs the state a lot of money, time and resources to get a homeless adult off the streets and into housing, Cortes said, while preventing a child from becoming homeless is a much less costly investment.

The Everett lawmaker first learned about the discrepancy in the state’s courts last year. He said backlogs in the courts – caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing staffing shortages – are the main culprit for delayed charges. But like most things in life, power and money also play a role.

The potential lag for youth charges brings disproportionate harm to Black children, Indigenous children and other youths of color who are locked up for nonviolent offenses at rates far higher than white children.

“That’s where the injustice comes in with minority populations and/or populations that are just low income,” Cortes said. “They’re not going to be able to have the same success as someone who can afford to have their own private attorney.”

About 95% of the time police arrest a child in the United States, it’s for suspicion of a nonviolent offense. Yet research shows Black children, Indigenous children and other children of color are nearly five times more likely to be locked up for a nonviolent offense than white children.

“This disparity not only reflects the systemic racism of a justice system that treats them with a presumption of dangerousness, but perpetuates that racism by stamping them by their sentencing record,” reads a report by the Juvenile Law Center.

In Washington, Indigenous children are three times more likely to end up in the prison system than white children.

Several law experts and people who have served time in prison testified at hearings in Olympia over the past couple of months, urging lawmakers to pass Cortes’ bill.

One of them was Cameron Miller, a formerly incarcerated Washington resident. Miller told some of his story to the state’s House Committee on Human Services, Youth, & Early Learning.

Weeks before Miller’s 18th birthday, he took a plea deal after his criminal case was tried in youth court, he told the committee. He didn’t have money to pay for a private attorney. None of his family showed up to court, so he made the decision to plead out all on his own.

Prosecutors reportedly told Miller that if he didn’t take the deal and instead pleaded not guilty, he’d be tried in adult court and could spend up to 13 years behind bars.

Miller went on to spend the next three years in a state prison, he said.

“This bill being passed would help young people who don’t have the support of their family or the financial support to get a real lawyer,” Miller testified. “This will help people take the next step into life and help young people have a chance. It does give them hope, and it will give them hope to do better.”

If signed into law, the bill could improve equality, said King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Galvin.

“I have seen firsthand the stark differences between what is available to youth and aga-appropriate treatment,” Galvin told lawmakers, “versus what is available in the adult system.”

Attorney Katherine Hurley told The Spokesman-Review that she’s seen multiple defendants’ cases tried in adult court, even though the offenses happened when they were under 18. Hurley, who works in the King County Department of Public Defense, spoke at multiple public hearings in support of Cortes’ proposed legislation.

Sen. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick, urged lawmakers to vote “no” during debate over House Bill 2217 on the Senate floor, arguing the bill could increase the backlog plaguing courts in the state.

“We are fundamentally changing the traditional principles of the criminal system with this bill,” Boehnke said. “We need to look at everybody, holistically. … We see headlines in our papers saying ‘We need to have some kind of safety for the other children that are in our jurisdictions.’ ”

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, echoed Boehnke’s concern in the name of public safety.

“We’re dealing with very violent crimes,” Padden said. “… We know that the juvenile system is really supposed to be for juveniles, not somebody up to age 25 who could be a very repeat offender, a hardened criminal. We’ve got to take these things more seriously, in my view.”

Legislation was passed previously that allows a person to be in juvenile detention until age 25, Hurley said, because the human brain continues to develop into a person’s mid-20’s.

Research from Hurley’s office also found that Cortes’ bill would improve public safety. Children whose cases remain in juvenile court are less likely to commit additional crimes than those who face conviction in adult court.

“Washington can reduce recidivism and promote public safety by providing additional pathways for bringing cases stemming from conduct individuals engaged in when under 18 back to juvenile court and sentencing fewer young people in adult court,” reads a memo from the King County Department of Public Defense.

Washington’s Association of Prosecuting Attorneys spoke in support of Cortes’ bill.

The association generally appreciated what the proposal would provide them, which is “a little bit of flexibility,” Executive Director Russell Brown told lawmakers.

“They look at it as not a change in what’s happening in juvenile court, but who is able to access juvenile court.”

Washington’s 2024 legislative session is set to adjourn March 7.