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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Adult Trials, Long Sentences For Youth Get Scrutiny In Washington

Harvey Barrison
Flickr -

The practice of automatically charging 16 and 17-year-olds as adults for serious crimes is coming under scrutiny. The issue will come up Monday at a youth justice conference in Seattle and Tuesday during a Washington Supreme Court hearing.

The conference will tackle many issues related to juvenile justice and developing brain science. But a key focus will be a 1994 Washington law that automatically directs 16 and 17-year-olds into adult court for serious violent crimes like murder and assault.

In 1997, the law was expanded to include crimes like first-degree robbery. Now critics note that 90 percent of the youth sentenced as adults in Washington state were convicted of robbery.

This week the Washington Supreme Court will hear a challenge to a case involving two teens who robbed Halloween trick or treaters at gunpoint in Tacoma. They each received decades-long sentences. The Court will decide if those sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment given the age of the robbers.

Another concern raised by critics of the 1994 law is disproportionality. In Washington state, 43 percent of youth automatically charged as adults are African American youth as compared to 18 percent who are white.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."