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Originally published Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Give juvenile ‘lifers’ a path to early release from prison

The Legislature should heed the U.S. Supreme Court, and adolescent brain research, to provide a pathway to early release for juvenile offenders serving life sentences

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE state Legislature should embrace a significant philosophical shift in criminal sentencing policy, based on a truism to which any parent can attest: Kids make terribly dumb decisions.

That is backed by reams of scientific study. Brain-imaging research shows the frontal lobes of adolescents’ brains — the parts associated with reasoning and decision making — are not fully formed, creating misfires between thought and action.

That research was a foundation for three landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings since 2005 regarding defendants who were under 18 at the time of their crimes, but tried as adults.

Finding that kids are not as culpable as adults, and are more amenable to reform, the court ruled the most severe sentences for adults — the death penalty and mandatory life without parole sentences — were unconstitutional for juveniles.

The latest ruling, in the 2012Miller v. Alabamaopinion, rendered unconstitutional Washington’s mandatory life-without-parole sentence for juvenile defendants, which applies only to those convicted of aggravated first-degree murder.

Two bills now in Olympia — Senate Bill 5064, sponsored by Sen. Mike Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and House Bill 1338, by Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Lynnwood — would allow lifers who committed their crimes before age 18 a path to early release.

The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys drafted SB 5064, suggesting the new minimum sentence at 30 years to life, with a presumption in favor of release after 30 years. HB 1338 is more lenient, with a sentence of 20 to 35 years.

Either way, it would also apply retroactively to 28 current inmates, men who expect to die in prison. Among them is Barry Massey, sentenced to a life-without-parole sentence for a robbery-murder in Steilacoom when he was 13. He is now 39, married, and a model inmate.

The prosecutors deserve credit for initiative. Their bill goes further, to provide a path to early release after 30 years for former juvenile defendants serving “functional life sentences.” These are cases, often involving murder, with consecutive sentences or sentencing enhancements so long that they may as well be life.

About 72 additional inmates would qualify, although HB 1338’s more lenient provisions could expand that number to 162.

The notion of early release for murderers, even those who were juveniles at the time, is politically loaded and morally complex. Each deprived a victim of life and a family of peace. Few legislators are elected with a label of being soft on crime.

But criminal justice is not just about punishment, nor should it be driven by inflammatory anecdotes.

The Supreme Court rulings, citing the brain science, affirms that juveniles, even those with serious crimes on their conscience, are not fully formed adults. Imposing a life sentence on an unformed mind excludes all chance of rehabilitation, and disregards what the high court called the diminished culpability of adolescents. It is, in effect, a death sentence for a 16- or 17-year-old.

Ignoring this issue won’t make it go away. If Washington state’s now-unconstitutional law is not changed, it faces dozens of expensive, and likely successful, appeals.

Similar legislation has been introduced or passed in seven other states, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. California allowed juvenile lifers to seek resentencing after 15 years; Iowa set it at 60 years.

The Legislature, in finding the right threshold, should require evidence of reformation. After decades in prison, many of those one-time teenage lifers will be eager to prove it.

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