The Washington Supreme Court recently ruled in 5-4 decision that trial judges may not impose a minimum term of life in prison without the possibility of release for 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of aggravated murder. Washington Supreme Court Justice Susan Owens said “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.”
The minority opinion, written by Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens, argued the decision reinterprets the 2012 Supreme Court decision Miller vs. Alabama, known simply as the “Miller Decision,” and this recent ruling eliminates trial judges’ discretion as to whether or not to sentence 16- and 17-year-old aggravated murderers to prison for the rest of their lives.
Following last week’s Supreme Court decision, Washington now joins 20 other states and Washington, D.C., in abolishing life without parole for juvenile offenders, and according to Washington prison records, 30 inmates will be affected by the Court’s decision. According to an article in The Olympian, the Court pointed out that “…sentencing children to life without parole constitutes cruel punishment and is unconstitutional.”
Youth Killers and Prison: An Emotional and Political Topic
Imprisonment for violent offenders is a hotly debated topic, and when teen offenders are at the core of the debate, you can certainly expect the discussion to get even more contentious.
Many believe that teenagers who commit “adult” crimes like murder should be punished just as adult killers. Others believe that teenagers don’t have the depth of thinking and maturity to fully comprehend their actions and therefore should never be “put away” for the rest of their lives for something they did during their teen years, no matter how terrible.
Neuroscience agrees with the latter view. There are studies that show adolescent brains aren’t fully developed until age 25. Many argue that because of that scientific fact, juveniles must be considered less culpable than adults for criminal behavior. Studies have also shown that adolescents possess a greater propensity for rehabilitation and changes in their behavior than adults. All of this research plays a large part in the judicial system’s movement away from incarcerating teen offenders for the rest of their adult lives.
Brian Bassett’s Legal Journey From Behind Bars
At the heart of this matter is the life of now 39-year-old Brian Bassett, who shot and killed his parents and then drowned his five-year-old brother in a bathtub when Bassett was 16 years old.
An article in The Olympian details Brian Bassett’s long legal fight. In 1996, the teenager was found guilty on all three counts of aggravated first degree murder. The trial judge in his case referred to him as “a walking advertisement” for the death penalty before sentencing him to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole—the mandatory sentence at that time.
Bassett’s attorneys argue that he has not had any prison violations for 15 years, he has earned his GED behind bars, was on the Edmonds Community College Honor Roll, participated in counseling programs, received certificates for various trades, and got married in 2010. His terrible mistakes as a boy of 16 should keep him behind bars for the rest of his life, his attorneys say.
Eric Lindell, one of Bassett’s attorneys, wants to stress that the Supreme Court ruling does not mean that men who killed when they were teenagers will now all go free. The ruling simply means that teens previously sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole will have the opportunity to be resentenced. Lindell said the next step would be to go before the state Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, and it would be up that board to grant or deny release.