Washington Appeals Court: Age matters at sentencing, even when youth are tried as adults

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Washington Court of Appeals Division 2 has invalidated the sentence of a 16-year-old who was sentenced to 92 years in prison for assault because the court failed to consider the teen’s age as a factor when sentencing him.

The ACLU of Washington filed an amicus brief in the case, State of Washington v. Guadalupe Solis Diaz, asserting that Solis Diaz’s youth must be considered as a basis for a sentence shorter in length than an adult would receive.

The ruling is the latest in a series of court rulings which recognize brain science has demonstrated that social, emotional, and mental maturation is complex and individual. Embracing a more nuanced view of adulthood requires us to let go of the bright line distinctions between “juveniles” and “adults” and recognize individual capacity for growth and change.

Solis Diaz was 16 years old in 2007, when he participated in a shooting incident in Centralia that injured no one. His case was automatically transferred to adult court under Washington’s “automatic decline” law. That law sends juvenile defendants to adult court if their cases meet certain criteria, such as when the defendant is 16 or 17 and charged with a serious offense. The automatic decline law also results in juveniles facing extremely long prison sentences with no consideration of any mitigating factors about the offense or the individual. The prosecutor chose to charge Solis Diaz with six counts of first degree assault, each with a firearm sentencing enhancement, which is why he faced a standard range sentence of 1,111 months in prison.

In its May 17 decision, the Court of Appeals said it was unlawful for the sentencing judge to refuse to consider the multiple counts and youth as mitigating factors. The court cited State v. O’Dell, the2015 Washington Supreme Court decision that says a judge sentencing a defendant for a crime committed after his 18th birthday can consider the defendant’s young age as a possible reason to impose a lower sentence.

In O’Dell, the majority specifically cited and relied on references to adolescent brain science research contained in an amicus brief submitted by the ACLU-WA that shows young adults may be less culpable for crimes because their brains are still developing. That’s why the Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), found sentences for life without parole unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, since sentences that mean a defendant will die in prison remove all consideration of the lesser culpability of youth.

In its decision in Solis Diaz, the Court of Appeals agreed sentences so long that they amount to a life sentence must comply with the same principles underlying the decisions in O’Dell, Miller, and other cases that “generally show among juveniles a reduced sense of responsibility, increased impetuousness, increased susceptibility to outside pressures, including peer pressure, and a greater claim to forgiveness and time for amendment of life.”

The court said Solis Diaz must be sentenced again, and this time, the sentencing court must conduct a meaningful, individualized inquiry into whether his young age at the time of the offense should mitigate his sentence.