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Originally published September 18, 2009 at 2:48 PM | Page modified September 20, 2009 at 12:56 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington state must get serious about kids with guns

Washington state's juvenile-sentencing law sends the wrong message to kids caught with guns, writes King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. He argues the Legislature should amend the law to give young people convicted of unlawful gun possession a serious sentence rather than the slap on the wrist they get now.

Special to The Times

THE 17-year-old boy was hanging out with his friends in a city park. When he saw the police approaching, he tossed his backpack inside a trash can and ran off. When police opened the backpack, they found a loaded .45-caliber handgun among his school books.

An armed juvenile is a threat to the peace of the community, and gun possession by a juvenile is a felony offense when it is not associated with hunting or organized shooting events.

Several weeks later, the teenager stood before a Juvenile Court judge who gave him a standard sentence for his illegal handgun. The judge also sent him a strong message:

The sentence: six months of probation, 40 hours of community service, and a deferred disposition, meaning that the conviction would disappear from his record in a matter of months.

The message? Carrying a gun in your school backpack is no big deal.

Fast forward eight months: The same young man, who had just turned 18, knocks on the back door of a Central District nightclub. The door is opened and he walks in, firing another handgun. He kills one man, severely injures another, and fires nine shots into the crowded club.

The young man now awaits trial in adult court for first-degree murder and assault. This time, he faces a 30-year prison sentence.

The new message? Using the gun in your backpack is a very big deal.

The scenario above is not only true, there are six more just like it from King County in the last year. In each of these six cases of murder and aggravated assault, the teenage defendant had recently been sentenced in Juvenile Court for gun possession, where they each received a minimal sentence. Within a year, each had committed a violent gun crime that landed them in adult court, facing decades in prison.

Young men, armed with guns, roaming the streets of Seattle ought to raise serious concern in the eyes of the law. Instead, unlawful gun possession in Juvenile Court is one of the least-serious crimes on the books.

The sentencing law for juveniles convicted of illegal gun possession is as follows:

• First conviction, zero to 30 days detention, zero to 12 months probation;

• Second conviction, same as the first, zero to 30 days detention, zero to 12 months probation;

• Third conviction, the same;

• Fourth conviction — If the first three trips through the court system didn't teach the offender a lesson, well, they still only face 0 to 30 days in detention, zero to 12 months probation.

What you have read is not a typo. Only upon the fifth felony conviction will the sentence require that the juvenile spend some time (15 to 36 weeks) out of the community and in a state Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) facility, like Echo Glen near North Bend.

At Echo Glen, youthful offenders spend time with counselors and engage in research-based programming designed to get them to see the consequences of their actions, and to take responsibility for their own decisions — like the decision to carry a gun.

At Echo Glen, juvenile offenders also learn that this state will treat them as an adult if they choose to use a gun, even if they are only 16 or 17.

We have failed our youth with the current sentencing model, which does so very little to deter or teach a kid about the danger of the decision to carry a gun.

We cannot wait until a kid has five felony convictions for carrying a handgun before we act to remove them from the community. That is a failed law that endangers both the kid and the community.

Nor can we wait until they decide to squeeze the trigger before imposing significant consequences. The qualitative difference between carrying a gun and using it is not that great — especially for young people who do not always link actions to consequences. And yet when a kid carries a gun and is caught and arrested, virtually nothing happens to them in court. Once they use the gun, the system comes down upon them like a ton of bricks — adult court and adult sentences await.

This next legislative session, county prosecutors from all over the state will ask lawmakers to treat juvenile gun possession as a serious crime, with the result that the first conviction earns the offender a trip to a JRA facility for 15 to 36 weeks, instead of the fifth conviction. Our goal is to make it quite clear to all youth the decision to carry a gun is a serious life-altering decision, with life-altering consequences.

We are all alarmed at the escalation of youth violence, and many community leaders are wondering out loud what we should do about kids who carry guns. I believe we should start by paying attention to kids who arm themselves to go to school or drive around their neighborhood.

An armed juvenile is a red flag that we ignore at our own peril.

Dan Satterberg is the King County prosecuting attorney.

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