Layton — and this astonished some people who know him — didn’t fight back. He threw the kid down onto a table and then, “I wrapped him up and waited for staff to come. Walking away is difficult.”
His decision impressed staff at Green Hill and Layton says he made a pitch to be transferred to a different JRA — where he would not have to keep fighting and with better school and job prospects.
“I’m trying to do better, man. I’m trying to get out and be successful. It’s got to start here,” Layton says. “It was very difficult to [break with the gang] because I’ve been around it so much.”
A couple of days after our telephone interview, a Green Hill program director called to say that Layton had been transferred.
Meanwhile, The Inlander discovered an unexpected and disturbing aspect of automatic declination in Allison Wessling’s case.
Remember that only 14 of 122 auto-decline cases were returned to juvenile courts? Does this mean, we wondered, that Spokane County has sent up to 108 kids into penitentiaries in the last few years?
Not likely. When young offenders are convicted as adults, they are held in two of the juvenile prisons — Green Hill for males, Echo Glenn for females — until they turn 18 (21 in some cases), and then are assessed for transfer into adult penitentiaries. The two facilities have only 65 beds, combined, for auto-declines, Griffith says.
So where do all these kids go?
Emerging anecdotal evidence suggests that they are kept in county jails.
Sorting out the data in automatic declinations is frustrating, even to investigators and number-crunchers at the governor’s Office of Juvenile Justice and the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
In other words, nobody really knows how many 16- and 17-year-olds are pulling time in county jails.
“You should tell your readers these numbers are all estimates,” says Keri-Anne Jetzer, a research investigator with the Washington Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
Like Jetzer, “We have not found a single agency that tracks these numbers,” says Beth Colgan, attorney with the Columbia Legal Foundation in Seattle.
“I am not familiar with the number of auto-declines serving time in county jails,” Griffith says. He hopes it is not becoming an institutionalized choice. “It’s not set up for long-term treatment. It is more punishment-oriented.”
County jail is where we met Allison Wessling, wearing a dark green jumpsuit and with dark, rumpled hair behind the thick glass in a claustrophobic visiting booth. She has distinctly pale skin that hasn’t felt sun in over a year.
Wessling and her pals, after the beer run fiasco, traveled to Worley in North Idaho. She was planning on running away to California the next morning with a BFF who lives on the Coeur d’Alene rez, but they caught the attention of security at Coeur d’Alene Tribal Casino and were quickly detained.
“[Security officers] were driving around the parking lot looking for anything suspicious and we were high and didn’t realize how stupid we looked,” she says.
She was eventually taken back to Spokane, where she was surprised to be booked into the jail and housed in the women’s maximum-security unit known as the Dog Pound. She has been in the jail 14 months, with two to go.
“Frankly, I was scared,” she says, when a prosecutor outlined her adult charges and later told her that she could face six additional first-degree assault charges, plus gun enhancements — a potential 30-year sentence — unless she took a plea deal.
Wessling pleaded guilty to three charges, reduced from the original but still Class A felonies. She gets out just before Halloween.
When she first went in, in June 2009, Wessling says inmates had two hours of free time in the mornings and two more at night. Now, with so many cutbacks to jail staff, inmates are typically out of their cells only 80 minutes a day. Other kids we’ve talked to note that the jail is frequently locked down so the undermanned staff can keep a lid on things.
There are some paperback books she can check out from a shelf in her unit, Wessling says. But no TVs, no school, no vocational training, no substance abuse counseling.
Wessling assessed her future in an interview conducted via a scratchy intercom.
“Being in a facility surrounded by people who are doing bad … that’s all they talk about, that’s how they live. You are surrounded by it every day. All they do is talk about their cases or smoking meth or robbing,” Wessling says.
Wessling says she’d like to stay out for good, but she also offered a critical self-examination.
“The thing with me is, I’ll do good, or I’ll try to do good and I’ll not get what I’m going for and I’ll get discouraged and fall back into what’s comfortable,” she says.
Colgan from the Columbia Legal Foundation says kids doing sentences in county jails are serving time in the worst possible way for juveniles. Even penitentiaries have clubs and counseling and classes.
And sentences being plea-bargained down to a year or less points out a failing — or a misuse — of the automatic declination process.
“This begs the question: If the sentences are that short, why are they not in juvenile court in the first place?” Colgan asks.
Youth in county jails also come out with adult Class A felonies — Wessling will have three — that never can be removed from their records. Juvenile Class A felonies — thanks to a reform pushed through the Legislature last year — can now be sealed after five years, in most cases.
Again, Colgan asks: “Do we want to make it difficult for kids to get a job or go to college? Do we want to make it difficult for them to be successful when they get out? Is this really serving the public interest?”
IN THE BEGINNING
The creation of a separate juvenile justice system in Washington in the 1970s was all about rehabilitation. Kids were treated differently than adults, younger kids differently than older kids. The focus was more on education than retribution. It was the New Testament God, not the Old.
Then came Columbine and Crips and Bloods and — thanks in part to breathless media coverage and political grandstanding — lawmakers promised to crack down on violent youth. People became afraid of teenagers.
All across America in the 1990s, laws allowing automatic declination were passed. Suddenly it was OK to toss minors into penitentiaries. Arizona, in 2008, charged an 8-year-old as an adult for two murders.
The youngest in Washington was 11. A 13-year-old in Washington was sentenced to life without parole.
A recent story out of Colorado noted that the juvenile crime rate in that state didn’t increase a whit during a period of high-profile media coverage of violent youth crime in 1993, dubbed by the media as the “summer of violence.”
In Washington, the overall juvenile crime rate has been declining since 1994, the same year the Legislature passed the Violent Crimes Reduction Act, which allows for automatic declination.
So it’s working, then?
“The recidivism rates are going through the roof,” says Bonnie Bush, administrator of Spokane County Juvenile Court Services. “We are maybe doing more harm sending kids over to the adult side.”
When the Violent Crimes Reduction Act was passed, “The Legislature saw this as an opportunity to say, ‘We are tough on crime’ without thinking through the impact of this,” says George Yeannakis, attorney with Team Child in Seattle and a leading voice for juvenile justice reform.
Legislators initially created a short list of violent crimes in which any kid 16 or 17 who was charged with one of them would go straight to adult court. The law was expanded in 1997 by adding more crimes to the list.
At least the 1994 law was heavily debated in the Legislature, was strictly limited and was passed as an experiment, Yeannakis says. The 1997 expansion passed with little debate and no evidence of what effect, if any, the law had on crime, he says. (In Idaho, juveniles can only be transferred into adult court for a short list of severe crimes.)
By 2000, Yeannakis adds, studies began to show that harsher adult punishment for juveniles was not working.
“Everybody knows that kids are different. I think the Legislature knows this, too. The study had a lot of disclaimers, but it said transferring more kids into the adult system did not have an impact on [reducing] violent crime,” Yeannakis says.
At the same time, research across the nation continues to show that human brains are not fully developed until we reach our 20s.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that banned death penalties for juveniles, wrote in the majority opinion, “From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”
The justices, according to Colgan, the Seattle attorney with Columbia Legal Services, “drew three distinctions between adolescents and adults. First, the court recognized youth are comparatively more immature than adults, [which] may lead to reckless behavior. Second, the court noted that youth are more susceptible than adults to negative influences such as peer pressure. Third, the court recognized that personality traits of youth are in flux, leaving time for additional character formation.”
Colgan was writing the above in a 2009 report (pdf) assessing the state’s juvenile justice system and calling for specific reforms. (See “Eight Reforms" sidebar.)
More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court also banned juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole for crimes other than homicide.
“Chief Justice John Roberts said that, because of adolescent brain development findings … he agreed with four others that you can’t put a kid away forever,” Yeannakis says. “We’re getting that kids are less developed than adults.”
Even as research showing that adolescents have very different decision-making capabilities than adults is becoming unassailable — even to the conservative chief justice — attempts to abolish automatic declines seem far away in Washington.
“What we run into when bills are offered to change the system is an almost reflex action of many legislators who do not want to be seen as soft on crime,” says Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson of Seattle. “There is a failure to recognize that although these juveniles may have committed very serious crimes, it’s not the same as a 26-year-old committing those crimes. … Kids are different than adults.”
"I sat and listened to the charges and said, 'You guys must have the wrong person. I'm not that kind of guy who would do that stuff.'" — Justin Cairns, who was arrested at 16
Justin Cairns is 19 now, a big kid with a friendly face who carries himself with the sort of demeanor that prompts observers to think: “Nice Young Man.”
But Cairns didn’t come across as such a nice kid nearly three years ago when a prosecutor read off a list of severe adult crimes that carried, he learned to his shock, a sentence of eight years in state prison.
Before then, the 16-year-old farm boy from Reardan (who lived with his grandparents) had never before been arrested for anything. But in high school, he began to experience the more oppressive side to small-town life: “Too many people know your business.”
Partly out of rebellion, Cairns started buying — and later shoplifting— cough and cold medicine. After users chug a bottle, the active ingredient, dextromethorphan, creates a long-lasting high that brings an expansive sense of well-being, hallucinations and an altered sense of time.
“It’s powerful. I saw it as this ‘next-world’ thing,” Cairns says. “I went downhill really fast.”