The Washington Supreme Court Just Banned Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Teens

The ruling comes a week after the court abolished capital punishment.

kali9/Getty

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Washington’s state Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to sentence teen offenders to life in prison without parole because their brains are less developed than those of adult offenders, arguing that they should be granted a second chance because of their potential for growth.

The 5-4 decision on Thursday comes one week after the court abolished the death penalty in the state. Washington is now one of at least 21 states, along with the District of Columbia, that ban life-without-parole punishments for crimes committed by people under the age of 18.

The case centered on a man named Brian Basset who received a mandatory life-without-parole sentence in 1996 after he was convicted of killing his mother, father, and younger brother at the age of 16. He thought he would die in prison, until the US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that such mandatory punishments were cruel and unusual for teens. The justices later said juvenile lifers who were stuck behind bars should be resentenced or given an opportunity for release. But they left the door open for judges to resentence them to new life-without-parole terms in cases where a person was believed to be irredeemable.

At the time, 70 percent of the country’s 2,600 juvenile lifers were people of color, and many had been sent to prison during the superpredator scare of the 1990s, when prosecutors attempted to depict teen criminals as dangerous and deserving harsh punishments.

In 2015, when a 35-year-old Basset appeared before a judge for resentencing, he argued he had turned himself around. At the time of his crime he had been homeless because his parents would not let him live with them. In prison he had earned a full-tuition scholarship to college and worked his way onto the honor roll. He was mentoring other inmates and had not committed any disciplinary infractions for more than a decade. Still, he was resentenced to life without parole, a term he contested as unconstitutional.

The Washington state Supreme Court agreed and categorically banned the sentence for teen offenders, saying it violated the state constitution, which it argued provided broader protections than the Eighth Amendment. “[W]e find that states are rapidly abandoning juvenile life without parole sentences, children are less criminally culpable than adults, and the characteristics of youth do not support the penological goals of a life without parole sentence,” Justice Susan Owens wrote for the majority.

While a growing number of states have moved away from harsh sentences for teens, some like Michigan and Louisiana continue to lag behind. In Louisiana, nearly two-thirds of juveniles convicted of new murder crimes since 2016 have been handed life sentences with no chance of parole; most of them were African American.

Read the Washington court’s full ruling below.

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate