On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court outlawed a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders in a landmark 5–4 ruling that places the state at the forefront of criminal justice reform. The court’s decision guarantees an opportunity for release to all inmates sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as minors. Because the ruling is rooted entirely in the state constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court cannot reverse it. Juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) is over in Washington State.
Although the Washington Supreme Court based its decision in the state Constitution, it took cues from the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently restricted JLWOP nationwide. In 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, SCOTUS held that mandatory JLWOP sentences—that is, those imposed automatically upon conviction for certain crimes—violates the Eighth Amendment because children have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” It made that decision retroactive in 2016, compelling every state to give all child offenders sentenced to mandatory JLWOP a shot at parole, or a new sentence. In response, the Washington Legislature tweaked its statutes: It mandated a new sentence for all inmates imprisoned under the JLWOP law, directing judges to consider each offender’s age, life experience, degree of responsibility, and chance of rehabilitation.
Brian Bassett was one such offender. He murdered his family in 1995 at age 16 after his parents kicked him out of their house, and received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. In light of the new law, Bassett requested a new sentence in 2015, providing extensive “mitigation documentation” and evidence of rehabilitation. Before the murders, a pediatric psychologist had found that Bassett suffered from mental disorders; afterward, he did not seem to fully understand his crime. Since then, Bassett has received his GED, as well as a full-tuition scholarship for community college, where he made honor roll. He serves as a mentor to other prisoners and has even gotten married. Regardless, a state judge rejected Bassett’s request, affirming his life sentence.
Bassett took his case to the Washington Supreme Court, arguing that the new statute violates the state constitution’s bar on “cruel punishment” because it still permits JLWOP. The court agreed. It first noted that “the direction of change in this country is unmistakably and steadily moving toward abandoning the practice of putting child offenders in prison for their entire lives.” In 2012, just four states banned JLWOP; today, 20 states and the District of Columbia have abolished it. The court also found that JLWOP is unduly harsh because “children are less criminally culpable than adults” and deserve some “hope of restoration.”
Finally, the court held that JLWOP serves no “legitimate penological goals.” Instead, it “makes an irrevocable judgment” about minors “that is at odds with what we know about children’s capacity for change.” Thus, the continued imposition of JLWOP is unconstitutionally cruel, and all offenders convicted for crimes committed as minors must be eligible for parole.
Thursday’s decision will have the immediate effect of granting Washington’s 14 inmates serving JLWOP sentences, including Bassett, a chance of release. It marks the second time in two weeks that the Washington Supreme Court has eliminated the state’s most draconian punishments: Last Thursday, the court invalidated the death penalty for good, concluding that it was imposed in an unlawfully “arbitrary and racially biased manner.”
In the coming years, advocates will increasingly turn to state supreme courts to curtail the excesses of the criminal justice system. With Justice Brett Kavanaugh replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to issue progressive Eighth Amendment decisions any time soon. (Kennedy frequently sided with the liberals on cruel and unusual punishment cases, and plainly viewed these progressive decisions as a key part of his legacy.) Unless lawmakers across the country swing left on this issue, reformers will need the aid of state courts to ensure that the system remains in line with our evolving standards of decency. The Washington Supreme Court just laid out a roadmap for every other state supreme court eager to finish the work that Kennedy began.