In a series of decisions, the United States Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to impose certain severe sentences on juvenile offenders. The Court first found the death penalty unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. Then, it found a sentence of life without parole to be unconstitutional for any juvenile offender who did not commit a homicide. The Court later held that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. Following these decisions, Washington juvenile sentencing laws were revised to eliminate mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders. A new Washington law also required re-sentencing of juvenile offenders who had been sentenced to life without parole: RCW 10.95.030. Washington also enacted RCW 9.94A.730, which allows juvenile offenders to petition for early release after serving 20 years.
An eligible offender sought re-sentencing under RCW 10.95.035. He had been convicted of multiple crimes as a juvenile, including aggravated murder and premeditated murder in 1992. He received a sentence of life without parole for aggravated murder and a consecutive sentence for premeditated murder.
At his re-sentencing hearing, he argued his sentences should run concurrently. The state argued the statute only gave the court the authority to address the sentence of life without parole and that the consecutive sentence was required pursuant to RCW 9.94A.589 because the crimes involve d multiple violent offenses that arose from separate and distinct criminal conduct. The judge agreed with the state and sentenced the defendant to 25 years to life for aggravated murder and left the sentence for the premeditated murder at 280 months to be served consecutively. The defendant appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. The Washington Supreme Court granted review upon the defendant’s petition.
The Washington Supreme Court has previously held that a sentencing judge has discretion in mandatory consecutive sentences for juveniles. The Washington Supreme Court held the sentencing court must consider the mitigating qualities of youth. It also held that the sentencing court has absolute discretion to consider an exceptional downward sentence for a juvenile offender regardless of any mandatory sentencing provision otherwise.
In considering this case, the Washington Supreme Court clarified that the opinion in the previous case was not limited to firearm enhancement statutes and had in fact questioned any statute that would limit the sentencing court’s ability to consider, “the mitigating factors of youth…”. The Washington Supreme Court also noted that this holding applied to any sentencing of juveniles, including re-sentencing under RCW 10.95.035.
The Washington Supreme Court noted that the “mitigating factors of youth” include, but are not limited to, the offender’s immaturity, failure to appreciate risks, the surrounding environment and family circumstances, the extent of participation, how pressure from family or peers may have affected the offender, the effect of the offender’s youth on his legal defense, and any factors suggesting he might be rehabilitated. The sentencing court may reduce the term of years, change consecutive sentences to concurrent, or both, if the court finds an exceptional sentence is warranted based on the factors.
In this case, the judge did not think he had the discretion to change the aggravated murder sentence and therefore did not consider any mitigating factors. The Washington Supreme Court held the defendant was entitled to consideration of an exceptional sentence in light of any mitigating factors of youth at his re-sentencing. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the sentence and remanded for re-sentencing.
Both the United States Supreme Court and the Washington Supreme Court recognize that juvenile offenders are different from other defendants. Juvenile defendants are entitled to certain protections, including the consideration of mitigating factors of youth during sentencing. If your child is facing criminal charges, and experienced Washington juvenile defense attorney can fight for their rights. Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562.