Washington is the first state in the nation that may no longer automatically sentence young adults convicted of murder to life in prison without parole for killings they committed when they were 18, 19 or 20 years old.
The 5-4 ruling by the state’s highest court extended the logic that the U.S. Supreme Court used when it held that anyone younger than 18 cannot be given mandatory life sentences for murder, holding that science has shown that the brain isn’t fully developed at that age.
The Washington state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that two men who were 19 and 20 when they killed their victims can still be sentenced to life without parole, but not before their trial judges first consider whether that’s fair, given their youthfulness at the time of the killing.
According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, lawmakers in Connecticut, Illinois and Nebraska are weighing legislation to end life without parole for young adults, The Associated Press reported. Florida and California are among the states that already allow for leniency toward youthful offenders — except for murder cases.
Josh Rovner, a senior associate at The Sentencing Project, urged other states to follow Washington’s lead. “It’s the right direction for courts and legislatures to go,” he said.
An advocate for youthful offenders, Lael E.H. Chester, director of the Emerging Adult Justice Project at the Columbia University’s Justice Lab, praised the Washington state decision as “exciting” because it recognizes the “growing body of research showing that youth transitioning to adulthood share many of the same characteristics as their younger peers and that their youthfulness is constitutionally significant.”
In her dissent, Washington Associate Justice Susan Owens wrote that it’s illogical to treat 18- and 19-year-olds as adults in multiple ways, including the right to enter into contracts, vote, join the military, quit school and get married, yet not hold them fully responsible for their crimes.
“Children are different, certainly,” she wrote, but added that the defendants, both of whom were long ago convicted separately for different incidents, “were not children when they brutally murdered their victims.”
A lawyer for one of the men in the Washington case said no more than 26 people serving life without parole for killings they committed when they were 18 or 19 years old will be affected by the case, AP reported.
The U.S. Supreme Court began a string of decisions inhibiting the most severe sentences for youth in 2005, when in Roper v. Simmons it abolished the death penalty for anyone convicted as a juvenile. Since then the high court has banned life without parole sentences for any juvenile convicted of a non-homicide, and has forbidden a mandatory life without parole sentence for those convicted of killings, though judges can still impose them after pondering the individual circumstances in a case.