July 12, 2010
Armed and Juvenile:
Tragic Outcomes and Bad Policy
Over the past two years prosecutors have seen an alarming increase in the number of violent crimes committed by teenagers with guns.
One way we count this increase in youth violence is the number of "automatic-adult jurisdiction" cases filed. State law requires filing in adult court against juvenile defendants who are 16 and 17 years old and who have been charged with violent crimes, usually involving guns.
For the three-year period of 2006-2008, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office (PAO) filed an average of 25 "auto-adult" cases per year. In 2009, that number more than doubled to 62. So far for 2010, the PAO is on course to file 70 auto-adult cases by the end of this year.
"We understand a lot more of the science surrounding juvenile brain development, problem-solving, and impulse control," said Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, "and it offers compelling reasons why teenagers should not carry guns on our streets and in our neighborhoods. Now we need to do something about the state sentencing laws that have a built-in tolerance for armed juveniles."
Under our State's current juvenile sentencing law, juveniles who are convicted of illegal gun possession receive a sentence of "local sanctions," meaning that they remain in the community, often serving light sentences of only a few days of home detention, and never more than 30 days at the county juvenile facility. These local sanctions miss the opportunity to provide effective counseling to teach kids about the dangers of illegal gun use.
Meanwhile, the State's Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) offers successful intervention programs to help kids understand the consequences of their decisions, like the decision to pack a gun. Unfortunately, it takes five illegal gun possession convictions before a juvenile can be sent to a JRA facility, like Echo Glen near Snoqualmie, and then for only a 15-36 week span.
Waiting until the fifth felony conviction before doing something meaningful about a juvenile with a gun makes no sense. This is especially true when the consequences for using a gun in a crime are that juveniles can find themselves in adult court, facing adult prison terms.
Some recent examples of "auto-adult" cases include:
State v. Gallegos: 17-year-old defendant Gustavo Gallegos has been charged, as an adult, with two counts of First Degree Assault for shooting two other teenagers in Auburn over the Fourth of July weekend. The defendant's 15-year-old brother has been charged in Juvenile Court for his role in the shooting.
State v. Dubois: 16-year-old defendant Matthew Dubois has been charged, as an adult, with First Degree Assault for shooting his teenage girlfriend in the face during a jealous rage over one of her MySpace postings. If convicted, he faces a minimum of 25 years in prison.
State v. Williams: 17-year-old defendant Marcus Williams has been charged, as an adult, along with 18-year-old co-defendant Dion Hooks, for using a gun to rob three other juveniles during a drug deal. Williams has nine prior convictions in Juvenile Court, including six convictions for Fourth Degree Assault. If convicted of his current charges, he faces a minimum of 5 to 10 years in prison.
During the 2010 legislative session, prosecutors tried to convince lawmakers to increase the seriousness levels and sanctions for certain juvenile gun crimes. Unfortunately, these efforts were not successful, but prosecutors will try again in 2011.
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