Protestors sit and stand holding signs various signs that read "DOW: your jail is RACIST," "Education not Prisons," "#NoNewYouth Jail," and "Cancel the Jail."

Activists Demand Repeal of Laws Requiring Youth Be Tried as Adults in Certain Cases

by Elizabeth Turnbull

Local groups, activists, and some state senators have been pushing against state laws that send youth through adult courts and are calling for systemic change and protections for some of the youngest people in the criminal justice system.

At a virtual panel held Tuesday, March 30, panelists, ranging from activist and attorney Nikkita Oliver, who is currently running for City Council Position 9, Seattle attorney Nick Allen, State Senator Jeannie Darneille, and survivors of the criminal justice system in their youth, specifically addressed a practice known as “automatic decline” or “auto decline.” 

Auto decline refers to state laws that allow for the juvenile system to automatically decline its jurisdiction over a minor who has committed certain serious crimes. This means that the minor’s case is filed in adult court instead.

Opponents of auto decline take issue with the laws because of psychological differences between minors and adults: Decision-making areas of the brain do not develop fully until age 25, and past data have also shown that young People of Color have been disproportionately impacted by these laws.

In addition, connections exist between increased recidivism and automatically sending juveniles to adult court, according to a 2013 study by the Washington Public Policy Institute. Washington’s auto decline law has been on the books since 1994 and was updated in 1997 to include other offenses.

“If we really want to promote public safety, we will do things that are restorative, we will do things that are healing, and more importantly, we will actually do things that are preventative,” Nikkitta Oliver said during the panel. “Decline laws are a reactionary response to ‘crime,’ and we could invest a lot more resources in ensuring that young people never reach the criminal punishment system in addition to abolishing discretionary and auto decline laws in our state.”

A coalition made up of King County Equity Now, the George Jackson Freedom Coalition, El Comite, Seattle Peoples’ Party, White Center Development Association, East African Community Services, and other groups hosting the panel is calling for Gov. Jay Inslee to implement a total moratorium on auto decline until legislation that permanently bans children in adult courts and jails is passed.

As part of their campaign, the group is also supporting SB 5122, which Sens. Jeannie Darneille and Rebecca Saldaña, among others, co-sponsored. The bill would work towards, but not completely eliminate, auto decline. Thus far, the bill has passed the Senate and as of April 2 is in committee in the House — the deadline to vote on opposite house bills is April 12.

 “I’m very hopeful that we will be moving forward,” Darneille said of the bill.

In addition to supporting SB 5122, the coalition is also calling on King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s office to return the cases of 13 youth who are currently auto-declined in adult court back to juvenile court. In addition they’re calling on Satterberg to withdraw his lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court on juvenile sentencing. He is appealing the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision that ruled youth age must be considered in charging and sentencing, but Satterberg’s lawsuit is arguing for mandatory minimums for youth.

Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.

Featured Image: Protesters in downtown Seattle in 2018 opposed to the building of a new youth jail. Activists are calling for an end to “auto decline,” where some youth are automatically tried in adult courts. Photo by catusbones via Flickr (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

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