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News / Northwest

Proposed law would make hundreds of Washington prisoners eligible for resentencing if they are serving time for juvenile records

By Ellen Dennis, The Spokesman-Review
Published: January 24, 2024, 7:35am

OLYMPIA — Between 800 and 1,500 Washington residents are sitting behind bars, serving extra time for their juvenile records — offenses state law says should not add additional time onto sentences for crimes committed as adults.

Of those incarcerated people, 422 are Indigenous, said state Rep. Chris Stearns, D-Auburn.

Last year, the Legislature passed a law that banned the state from adding extra prison time onto adults’ sentences for their juvenile adjudications. But the law only applied to newly convicted people, meaning people serving time for adult felonies still have to serve extra time in some cases if they have a past juvenile record.

The state’s House Committee on Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry on Monday held a hearing about a proposed bill sponsored by Stearns that would make last year’s law retroactively apply to prisoners sentenced prior to the new law’s effective date, and in most cases require the state to afford those people a resentencing hearing.

In Washington, Indigenous children are three times more likely to end up in the prison system than white children, Stearns said. And data shows that Indigenous people are incarcerated at a rate 38% higher than the national average.

“This bill really to me is about healing intergenerational trauma,” Stearns testified. “I think a lot of the members know that Native Americans have suffered for five, six, seven, eight more generations.” He pointed to wars against tribes, boarding schools and federal programs relocating Native people.

Among Washington’s prison population, 41% of Indigenous people, 39% of Black people, 38% of Pacific Islanders and 32% of Latino people have one or more juvenile felony adjudication in their background, according to state corrections data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

James McMahan, policy director with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, was one of three people who testified against the bill at Monday’s hearing. He argued the bill, if passed, would minimize the experiences of crime victims.

“We’re talking about a population here, all of whom recidivated as adults with a new felony conviction after they accrued their juvenile points,” McMahan testified.

In support of Stearns’ bill, 57 tribes from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians signed a resolution supporting the proposed legislation. Stearns said he has multiple incarcerated family members. The bill is aimed to help people behind bars who are trying to rehabilitate and join society, he added.

“I can tell you from my own standpoint. This means a lot to me,” Stearns said. “It means a lot to Native communities.”

Travis Comeslast is serving time right now at Airway Heights Corrections Center. In 1997, he was sentenced to 51 years of prison time. That sentence factored in two adjudications Comeslast received as a minor — adding 17 years onto what would have been a 34-year sentence if Comeslast was locked up today.

Comeslast testified at Monday’s hearing in support of the proposed law.

“Intergenerational and historic trauma are major contributors to the incarceration of Indigenous people,” Comeslast said. “We are over-represented in the prison system and have been sentenced in juvenile courts more than any other group.”

Pierce County Superior Court Judge and former federal prosecutor André Peñalver testified Monday in support of the bill as well. He said he also testified at last year’s legislative session in support of the initial bill that eliminated counting juvenile adjudication points for sentences moving forward.

That bill was necessary, Peñalver said, because research shows the human brain does not stop developing until about age 25. He noted that the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which controls impulses and judgment. Forcing longer sentences on adults because of the impulsivity of their youths is unjust, Peñalver added.

“A couple millennia ago, Aristotle defined a basic principle of fairness that like cases be treated alike,” Peñalver testified. “Today, there are people in prison who would not be in prison if they had the benefit of (the bill).”

Patrick Brown has spent the past six years working as an attorney who represents former and current residents of juvenile detention centers in the state. He said hundreds of his clients have been victims of sexual abuse and physical violence while in custody as minors, and because they did not receive the rehabilitative resources they needed, they continued down a path of criminal behavior into adulthood.

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“These facilities are filled with violence and sexual abuse perpetrated by other residents and staff,” Brown said. “Consequently, these juveniles live in constant fear, because those who are supposed to protect them and rehabilitate them are not fulfilling their responsibilities.”

Brown argued that children shouldn’t be punished for actions that are often caused by an unjust prison system.

Russell Brown, the executive director for the Washington Association of Prosecutors, said the state’s court system is too backed up right now to add to the workload.

“The criminal justice system isn’t just understaffed, it is completely overwhelmed,” Brown said. “Asking for resentencing, we don’t think is appropriate with the backlog.”

Also opposed to the bill was Juliana Roe, who testified on behalf of the Washington Association of Counties. Roe said her organization was not worried about the content of the bill, but rather the cost.

“This costs counties money,” Roe said. “If the state chooses to make this policy change, we believe that the state should pay for the resulting costs. Resentencing costs money.”

If passed, Stearns’ bill would add a new section to the current law to allow for people previously convicted to be included in relief from their original sentences if they meet a list of criteria.

In a memo, the ACLU of Washington referred to juvenile records as a “quiet driver” of disparities within the prison system.

“Due to the over-policing of schools and communities of color, Black, Indigenous, and other youth of color are disproportionately prosecuted and incarcerated, and therefore hold a disproportionate number of juvenile adjudications,” the memo reads. “Youth who lack the financial resources to navigate the criminal legal system are also at a disadvantage.”