Juvenile Crime Reform and What It Means for Your Child’s Defense

In 2018, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation that makes it easier for juveniles to avoid being prosecuted as adults for many serious crimes. The law pares down the array of charges for which the juvenile courts can "auto decline" a case and refer it to adult court, removing such crimes as aggravated assault, first-degree robbery and drive-by shooting. The law also extends the upward age limit for juveniles from 21 to 25 years old. In 1994, at a time of high crime rates, the state legislature gave county prosecutors the discretion to decide which 16- and 17-year-olds should be tried as adults for violent offenses, effectively making it unnecessary for the juvenile courts to decline jurisdiction in those cases. Originally, the auto-decline system covered serious violent offenses like murder, rape and aggravated assault. In 1997, it was expanded to include first-degree robbery, first-degree child rape and any violent crime committed with a firearm. The result was a huge increase in the number of youths entering adult prisons for terms that went past their 21st birthdays, when they otherwise would have been released from juvenile detention.

Under the 2018 legislation, 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer automatically sent to adult court for most violent crimes. Prosecutors may still seek adult treatment, but it is up to a judge to make decision to decline jurisdiction. An exception is first degree child rape, which still falls under the auto-decline rule, leaving the jurisdictional decision up to prosecutors. In recent years, reform advocates have prevailed on legislators, prosecutors and judges to put more of a focus on rehabilitation. King County has pledged to spend $4 million on various initiatives to prevent youths from entering the justice system and to improve rehabilitative services during detention. These moves toward more keeping more cases in juvenile court and putting greater emphasis on rehabilitative sentencing should mean fewer prison terms for minors charged with serious crimes. But adult prosecution is still likely for juveniles charged with offenses involving guns or those found to be affiliated with street gangs.

These crimes can carry sentencing enhancements. A skilled criminal defense attorney will use the sentencing guidelines and other aspects of the new law to mount a compelling argument to keep your son or daughter out of the adult system. If you are a parent of a minor who has been charged with a crime, contact a juvenile defense attorney immediately. At Peale Law Firm in Seattle, we are committed to seeking justice and fair outcomes for juvenile defendants throughout Washington.

If you are seeking a criminal defense attorney for a minor or adult, call us at (206) 429-4777 or contact us online.