Comment: Justice requires change in how we view juveniles’ pasts

Former county prosecutor backs legislation to end use of juvenile records in adult sentencing.

By Adam Cornell / For The Herald

Though widely predicted, the 2022 Republican “red wave” did not reach Washington state’s shores. Republican campaign messaging centered squarely on Democrats’ “soft on crime” policies. Ultimately, their ‘90s era arguments were unpersuasive to voters in Snohomish County and throughout our state, as Republicans failed to gain ground on Democrats in the state Legislature. Times change.

As a former elected county prosecutor and longtime child advocate, I have seen the evolution of our response to the public safety needs of our community over the years, particularly when it comes to kids and the law. Past progress aside, there is more to be done to advance justice for our community’s children. Democrats in the legislature — and any brave Republicans willing to join them — should embrace an opportunity for truly transformative change in juvenile justice policy by ending a particularly harmful and outdated vestige of the “tough on crime” era.

House Bill 1324 would retroactively and prospectively stop the practice of automatically sentencing adults to longer sentences because of crimes they committed as children. Convictions for the most heinous crimes — crimes where a juvenile is convicted in adult court or for sexual assault adjudications in juvenile court — would still count against an adult defendant. HB 1324 should become law. The current policy is neither based on evidence, nor in the interests of justice.

Evidence supports passage of HB 1324. Emerging scientific evidence on child brain development confirms what any fully formed adult already knows from the benefit of the passage of time and reflection: Kids are different in their ability to appreciate harm and risk and, by extension, understand the full consequences of their actions. Rational decision-making and emotional maturity are further muted for children who experience abuse and neglect, or whose families struggle to access basic resources: food, housing, behavioral health services.

The interests of justice also support passage of HB 1324. First, because current policy furthers the disparate impact that criminal legal involvement has on children of color, this reality reverberates back generations. Secondly, for today’s children, using juvenile felony convictions to enhance adult sentences is inconsistent with the rehabilitative intent of the Juvenile Justice Act in part because it undermines the hope and promise of a genuinely clean break from a childhood mistake.

Enactment of this legislation will place greater burdens on already under-resourced courts, prosecutors’ offices, and other criminal justice stakeholders, so timely and effective implementation will require the state to fully fund the effort.

What money will not fix is the destabilizing impact re-sentencing may have on victims and survivors of crime. The reality is that if HB 1324 is passed, some currently incarcerated defendants will see their sentences reduced.

As Snohomish County prosecutor, I was responsible for evaluating the meaning and application of justice. At times, this meant advocating to give people a second chance that I believed ultimately made the community safer. But these decisions were also made with an eye toward furthering a more progressive evolution of the application of justice.

Oftentimes, an opportunity for a second chance can have a devastating impact on victims and survivors. I personally handled cases where once-certain sentences were reconsidered—whether initiated by me, mandated by the court, or by clemency petition. As I sat at the table with a victim or survivor still pained by their experience, it was my duty to explain my reasoning: based in the law and the interests of justice. I was also responsible for ensuring their voices were heard by the court.

These decisions were not always easy for me — and I gather supporting HB 1324 may not be easy for some lawmakers — but they were necessary.

The wisdom of former times is not always timeless. It takes imagination and courage to further progress and make right. It is time for a change. Our Legislature should do right and pass HB 1324.

Adam Cornell is the former Snohomish County prosecuting attorney. He is a past recipient of the Center for Children and Youth Justice’s Norm Maleng Advocate for Youth Award and the Washington State Bar Association’s APEX Public Service Award.

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