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October 18, 2018

Washington Supreme Court declares all juve LWOP cruel punishment and unconstitutional under state constitution

Last week, as noted here, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty based on its arbitrary administration in Washington v. Gregory. Today the same court brings us another big state constitutional opinion in Washington v. Bassett, No. 94556-0 (Wash. Oct. 18, 2018) (available here). The death penalty abolition, interestingly, was unanimous, while this latest opinion divided 5-4. Here is how the majority opinion starts:

At issue here is the constitutionality of sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole or early release.  The State appeals a Court of Appeals, Division Two decision holding that the provision of our state's Miller-fix statute that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to be sentenced to life without parole violates the Washington Constitution's ban on cruel punishment.  Brian Bassett, recently resentenced to life without parole under the Miller-fix statute, argued at the Court of Appeals that juvenile life without parole is categorically unconstitutional.  The court adopted the categorical approach, rather than our traditional Fain proportionality test, and found that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole or early release constituted cruel punishment.  State v. Bassett, 198 Wn. App. 714, 744, 394 P.3d 430 (2017) (puhlished in part); State v. Fain, 94 Wn.2d 387, 617 P.2d 720 (1980).  We affirm the Court of Appeals' decision and hold that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole or early release constitutes cruel punishment and therefore is unconstitutional under article I, section 14 of the Washington Constitution.

Here is how the dissent gets started:

The majority's decision to invalidate a provision of our Miller-fix statute, RCW 10.95.030(3)(a)(ii), and to categorically bar the imposition of a juvenile life without parole (LWOP) sentence purports to rest on article I, section 14 of the Washington State Constitution.  However, it offers no basis in state law but is simply a reinterpretation of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012).  More precisely, the majority takes Miller's federal constitutional requirement — that a sentencing court consider youth and its attendant characteristics as mitigating factors in exercising sentencing discretion to impose LWOP — and uses it to categorically bar the exercise of such discretion under the state constitution.  Not only is this contrary to the holding in Miller itself, which does not categorically bar LWOP sentences for juvenile homicide offenders, it also departs from state precedent rejecting similar constitutional challenges and upholding judicial sentencing discretion.

October 18, 2018 at 04:23 PM | Permalink

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