He was drunk and the kid was moving. That’s all it took for Adam Layton to flip a U-turn on Sprague Avenue just east of downtown Spokane last winter, primed to throw a punch.
Layton is a tough, streetwise 16-year-old who already has 20 tattoos and a handful of felonies. He was driving with some buddies and a girlfriend. They were all plenty buzzed, he says, cruising in a warm car on a dank February night. It was a good time. Layton, even months later, can’t explain what happened next.
“I saw some dude riding a bike, so I pulled up. I hopped out. And I hit him,” Layton says. “He dropped, and we grabbed his bike, threw it in the car and drove off.”
Layton is recounting this spur-of-the-moment punch-out in the library of Spokane County Juvenile Detention this summer. He’d just been sentenced and was a day or two away from being shipped off to pull two years in the state’s maximum-security juvenile prison, Green Hill, near Chehalis. It’s what’s known as a JRA, run by the state’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration.
Layton realizes this is a big break. After all, the state wanted to try him as an adult and send him to a penitentiary for nearly four years along with a first “strike” as a violent criminal. Three strikes and you get life without parole.
“I never thought I’d be looking at significant time for socking a kid and taking his bike,” Layton says.
His age is what nearly sent him to adult prison. Even though he is still a minor, the law didn’t have to consider him a juvenile any more. At 16 and 17, there is a lever that diverts juveniles automatically into adult court if they are charged with certain crimes. Crimes like first-degree assault with bodily harm.
This is called “automatic declination.” It is little known outside the justice system and sends roughly 200 Washington teenagers a year into adult courts and — potentially — adult penitentiaries. As the term indicates, it happens automatically, without a hearing or any debate.
The idea is simple: Here is a list of crimes. Commit one of these and, if you are 16 or 17, you go straight to adult superior court, not juvenile court.
A prosecutor can decide to send the offender to juvenile court, but can’t be compelled by a judge or defender. “Prosecutors have the power of God,” one critic says.
The law was originally designed to punish the worst of the worst, but in practice that’s often not the case. Race, the strength of a defense attorney, the mood of a prosecutor and sheer luck can play a major role in deciding who is treated as a juvenile and who is not.
The stakes couldn’t be much higher for the kids involved: In the juvenile system, there’s counseling, school and a push for rehabilitation. In adult facilities, there’s punishment — as well as older inmates who, studies show, tend to exploit younger offenders.
Consider Allison Wessling, who at 17 was facing up to a 30-year penitentiary sentence even though she had no criminal record. Like Layton, she is another streetwise kid, but with no history of violence. Instead, Wessling’s legacy consists of truancy, running away and drinking.
In fact, she was planning on running away to California with a girlfriend in June 2009. She asked her friends to take her back to her dad’s house on Spokane’s South Hill so she could break in and collect her stuff.
“They cleaned the house out,” her dad says.
With money from the burglary and her Job Corps paycheck, Wessling and her older friends decided to go drinking. She purchased a half-gallon of whiskey, she says, but the others wanted beer.
At a north-side grocery, an older cousin shoplifted the beer. Then he pulled a gun on the way out when confronted by employees. Even though she had remained in the car, Wessling was considered an accomplice and so she, too, found herself charged with first-degree theft, first-degree armed robbery and unlawful possession of a firearm. Plus, there were as many as six first-degree assaults (from the gun-waving cousin) hanging over her head, she says the prosecutor told her.
Unlike Layton, whose prosecutor and defender eventually agreed to return him to juvenile court, Wessling took a plea deal for reduced time and has been serving her adult felony sentences in the Spokane County Jail, which she describes as “a dungeon.”
Layton’s and Wessling’s cases offer an unexpected peek into how the automatic declination process has crept away from original intent to safeguard society from young monsters.
In one case, it allows the system simply to give up on some kids and send them to penitentiary for no other reason than that people are tired of dealing with them.
In the other, youth are offered plea bargains for short sentences in county jails where it’s the worst of both worlds. They are a) not being locked away for many years to protect society, and b) receiving absolutely no rehabilitative attention.
With just shy of 2,000 troubled youth in Washington “auto declined,” as the phrase goes, in the last decade, some say there’s been mission drift.
Is it time to reassess automatic declination? A growing body of research into brain development is producing evidence (pdf) about adolescent behavior that parents already know: Teens do incredibly stupid things without thinking.
This is not willful behavior. The human brain itself is neither finished developing nor fully functional until about age 25. Teenagers make decisions with a brain that, largely, is impulsive, aggressive and has little concept of long-term consequences.
This research has become so solid that the U.S. Supreme Court has cited it twice since 2005 in rulings that have banned the death penalty and limited life without parole as sentences that can be given to juveniles.
Other studies show young offenders punished as adults have higher rates of re-offending than those in juvenile rehabilitation.
“I don’t see how we are doing anything for these kids,” by auto declination, says Kari Reardon, a Spokane County public defender. “Why do we want to create more FACT criminals?”
Research into brain development and recidivism has also led to a study in Washington that is calling for eight reforms in the state’s juvenile justice system, including abolishing automatic declinations.
It’s a reform that, The Inlander discovered, has a surprising level of local support.
“I wouldn’t object to that. It’s kind of a due process kind of question” for juvenile offenders, says Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker.
"It makes no sense to send kids to adult prisons where they frequently learn how to be a better and more violent criminal." — Former Superior Court Judge Neal Rielly
After all, the goal of juvenile court “is still rehabilitation,” adds former Superior Court Judge Neal Rielly, who retired last month after 22 years on the bench, ending with a three-year stint in juvenile court. “It’s become a more adversarial system, but the mission is still rehabilitation. That’s the primary focus.”
There has always been a way for prosecutors to bring adult charges against a minor who has committed horrible crimes. These are called “discretionary declinations,” and a judge decides if the offender goes to adult or juvenile court after a hearing.
This is the only way declinations should happen, Rielly says.
In automatic declinations, prosecutors can detail aggravating factors — a gun was used, the victim was beaten — in the charges. There is no place for mitigating factors to be presented (until trial, if a trial happens at all).
One young man interviewed by The Inlander noted the stark difference. In adult court, he was portrayed as an awful person who needed to be punished for a string of serious-sounding crimes. In juvenile court, he was seen as a kid with a drug problem who needed help.
“If we are going to do declinations — and there is a place for them — there would be very few people I would decline on, to be honest with you, because I think it is usually a mistake,” Rielly says. “A judicial officer should be able to review the evidence and have a contested hearing where a prosecutor is arguing for it and a PD [public defender] is arguing the other way.”
“I think that sounds fair. I agree with the judge on that,” Tucker says.
“I don’t think it’s [automatic declination] being misused,” says Spokane attorney Frank Malone, who’s challenging Tucker in the November election. “Even if you have a first-time offender, if they do a serious, violent offense, you don’t want to lose control over that person in a few years. That’s the advantage of adult court.”
Which is the theory behind moving minors out of juvie — balancing the potential rehabilitation of an individual against the protection of society.
But in practice, youth who have been auto-declined are serving sentences that are, on average, a year longer than those convicted in juvenile court, says David Griffith, acting director of the Division of Institution Programs for juvenile prisons.
“There’s a study that shows if we take a juvenile and put him in adult prison, his recidivism rate is about 85 percent. If I keep him here as a juvenile — even if he is a jerk-off and not responding to our treatment — his recidivism rate is substantially less,” Rielly says. “Just on that alone, it makes no sense to send kids to adult prisons where they frequently learn how to be a better and more violent criminal.”
Adam Layton had a fistful of priors and had gotten into plenty of fights before he found himself on the brink of adult punishment this winter. When Layton was 10, his father was murdered. Later, a friend committed suicide, and last year a second one was stabbed to death with a steak knife in a north Spokane fight against five other kids.
Layton was a kid headed deeper into trouble, and everybody knew it.
The inexplicable punch he threw last February fits pretty neatly into examples used by researchers to illustrate the still-forming adolescent brain.
The punch was impulsive and aggressive. It was thrown without any reason or plan. As for the stolen bike: “We didn’t know what to do with it. We kept it in the garage [until] a detective came and got it.”
“When I first got that case, everybody had given up on Adam,” his public defender Jeff Leslie says. “He had so many assaults, they were thinking he was beyond help.”
However, unlikely sources stood up for Layton. There were the administrators of a juvenile facility, where Layton had earlier done time, who liked him and saw potential. The victim and the victim’s father also saw some hope in Layton and were agreeable to giving him another shot in a juvenile prison, Leslie says. Finally, the prosecutor sat down with Layton for a rare face-to-face and agreed to send his case back to juvenile court.
It doesn’t happen often. Out of the last 122 automatic declinations in Spokane County (going back to October 2005), only 14 young offenders were returned to juvenile court.
The Inlander has followed up by telephone at Green Hill. Layton’s voice changes, becoming noticeably enthusiastic, as he talks about attending school for the first time in years. And to find out that he likes it. He’s jazzed about learning, even taking classwork back to his cell. “I’ve never been in a real high school before,” he says. He notes, with some excitement, that he can get a diploma through Green Hill, not just a GED.
“And the diploma doesn’t say Green Hill. It says Chehalis School District,” Layton says.
He is also excited about opportunities to learn vocational skills and getting “real” jobs through the JRA system with the state Department of Natural Resources on tree-planting and fire-fighting crews.
“We offer something that is quite a bit different than what they might find in a [Department of Corrections] setting or a jail setting,” says Griffith. “Our setting is like a large campus designed for adolescents with a high school as opposed to GED. There are treatment programs designed for adolescents.”
The emphasis is on education and rehabilitation. The programs are staffed at higher levels than the DOC, and they are mandatory.
But it doesn’t mean life in a juvenile facility is a cakewalk. Green Hill has a reputation for assaults, and Layton quickly experienced it first hand.
Layton’s gang tattoos had initially won him allies at Green Hill from Spokane Sureños circles — trusted people to hang out with. But a counselor challenged Layton to walk away, and he did.
“Then one day, I was walking out of the bathroom and a kid ran up and punched me,” he recounts.