October 18, 2018
In a decision reached today, State of Washington v. Brian Bassett, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional. The sentencing statute, RCW 10.95.030(3)(a)(ii), which permits a life sentence for youth ages 16-18 who are convicted of aggravated first degree murder, violates the ban on “cruel punishment” under Article 1 section 14 of the Washington Constitution.
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Miller v. Alabama, holding that mandatory life sentences for youth who commit homicides violate the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. In response to the Miller decision, in 2014 the Washington Legislature passed legislation commonly referred to as the “Miller-fix.” Prior to the Miller fix, youth tried as adults and convicted of aggravated murder had only one sentence available: mandatory life without parole. Pursuant to the Miller-fix, youth under 16 at the time of their crime receive a sentence of 25 years to life, with an opportunity for release after serving the minimum 25 year term. Until today, youth ages 16-18 at the time of their crime, like Mr. Bassett, could still receive a life sentence. Mr. Basset and many others like him sentenced prior to the Miller-fix, received new sentencing hearings. Mr. Bassett, at his re-sentencing hearing, received three consecutive life sentences. Today, the Washington Supreme Court invalidated the statute that authorized that life sentence.
The Washington Defender Association lauds the decision noting that by striking down this statute, Washington rightly joins the national trend in abandoning juvenile life without parole sentences. As the Washington Supreme Court noted, “[a]s of January 2018, 20 states and the District of Columbia have all abolished life without parole for juveniles…Additionally, 4 states no longer have anyone serving a life without parole sentence under their respective statutes…several states have moved to provide parole eligibility to those sentences to juvenile life without parole pre-Miller.”
State v. Bassett, as well as other recent cases dealing with fair sentencing of youth, is based on scientific research in recent years demonstrating that adolescent brains continue to develop and mature well into a person’s 20s. From this research, courts now recognize the principle that youth are significantly different from adults and as a result, courts must treat them differently, taking into account the inherent traits and characteristics that distinguish them from adults.