Washington State Supreme Court Rules Life Without Parole for Children Unconstitutional

The landmark decision makes Washington the 21st state (plus DC) to ban the sentence, meaning a majority of states now ban or do not use it

October 18, 2018, Washington, DC –– Today, the Washington State Supreme Court handed down a decision in State of Washington v. Brian Bassett, in which it ruled that sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional, thereby banning this inhumane sentence in that state. (Read an amicus brief filed by the Juvenile Law Center with input from the CFSY here).

Washington is now the 21st state, plus the District of Columbia, to ban sentencing children to life without parole — in 2012, only five states banned the practice. For the first time in history, a majority of states ban or do not use life without parole for children. Included in that majority are “blue” and “red” states alike, such as Arkansas, Utah, Nevada, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and California. The United States Supreme Court has also stepped to limit this practice three times since 2010.

The Washington State Supreme Court recognized this momentum in its opinion, in which it found 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.” Nearly a dozen people told as children they would die in prison in Washington are now eligible to be resentenced.

“We’re thrilled that children sentenced to life without parole in Washington now have hope of a second chance and that Washington has joined the ever-growing number of states that have abandoned the barbaric practice of sentencing our children to die in prison,” says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “This national trend reflects an emerging consensus that our children who commit serious crimes should be held accountable in more age-appropriate ways that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”

Brian Bassett was a homeless sixteen-year-old when he was sentenced to life without parole in 1995. At his original trial, the judge called Bassett, still a child, “a walking advertisement” for the death penalty. Eventually, his case made its way to the Washington Court of Appeals which decided in favor of Bassett, a decision which was held by the Washington Supreme Court today. The Court of Appeals deemed it too risky to label a child “irreparably corrupt,” saying “given the difficulty even expert psychologists have in determining whether a person is irreparably corrupt and the extremely high stakes of the decision… this type of discretion produces unacceptable risk that children undeserving of a life without parole sentence will receive one.”

For more information, or if you would like to speak with Jody Kent Lavy or legal director Heather Renwick, please contact Karmah Elmusa at kelmusa@fairsentencingofyouth.org | 202-289-4677 ext. 113.

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The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is a national coalition that leads, coordinates, develops and supports efforts to implement fair and age-appropriate sentences for youth.

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