One night in mid-September 2007, he drove off in his grandfather’s car — an aging four-door Chevy Lumina — and went to an uncle’s house on a different part of the same large farm.
“That night I wanted money, so … I went to my uncle’s house. You can easily find the key to open the door, but I decided to be crazy and bust a window and go in that way,” Cairns says. He took money and, impulsively, one of his uncle’s guns.
“Later that night we got two of my other friends and we went out in this wheat field,” he says.
They started spinning brodies, wahooing and shooting the gun off into the night. One of the bullets hit a house.
When he showed up at his grandparents’ house the next night, “there were five cop cars in the driveway and I thought, ‘Wow! They really don’t like people taking other people’s cars.’”
Cairns was booked into juvenile detention, but the next afternoon, he was handcuffed and walked across the street to the jail because, one of the officers told him, of a thing called “auto declination.”
At his first court appearance, “That was the first time I heard about me being charged with drive-by shooting, theft of a firearm, residential burglary and taking a motor vehicle without permission,” Cairns says.
“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.’”
Cairns remained in solitary confinement for 23.5 hours every day for the next 10 days, he says. For their protection, juveniles are often isolated from general inmates for long stretches of time.
Still, some inmates, while out for exercise, would peer into his cell. “I was so glad there was a door,” he says.
“There is a lot of fighting in there. People are fighting or getting beat up or trying to get into the staff room … I felt like I was thrown into a dungeon,” he says.
About this time, public defender Kari Reardon took over his case from a private attorney and got him transferred the next day to Martin Hall, a holding facility for juveniles from around Eastern Washington. And, though it took seven months, she eventually got his case back to juvenile court by repeatedly citing his lack of a record.
“She is an amazing attorney,” Cairns says.
He was sent to a juvenile facility that specializes in drug counseling. Nine months later, he went to a group home in East Wenatchee. On March 18, Cairns was released with no probation or parole and is working at a McDonald’s, the one place that hired him despite his felony record.
“The difference between juvenile and adult court is night and day,” he says. “The adult side looked at my rap sheet and said, ‘We’ve got to punish this guy.’ The juvenile said, ‘This kid has a drug problem and he needs help.’”
Meet Starcia Ague (pronounced “starsha ag-you”). She grew up in a crazy, broken, drug-addicted family in Olympia and was sent to live with her dad, who was a meth cook.
People would ring the doorbell all day and all night looking for drugs and Ague, then 13, did not have a bedroom like most kids. She was camped in the living room and was often the one who would open the door to greet the people who came to purchase her father’s potent drugs.
“I figured,” Ague says, “that anybody who wanted to buy drugs bad enough would give me money.”
So young Starcia stood at the door and said, “It is a $1 charge for everybody who comes in.”
The thing is, she says, “people who sell drugs and buy drugs don’t carry dollar bills. I would get paid in $20s and $50s.”
Here is what she did with the money.
“I put it all in an account to go to college, but I was underage and had to have a cosigner.” One day, the police came for her dad and seized the savings account. “His name was on it and he owed $35,000 in child support, so I never seen any of it.”
She didn’t see it as a younger child, when she was living with her mom — an addict and prostitute who didn’t seem to care there was no food in the house, or that she never sent Starcia to school, or that the kids had head lice.
“I used to file CHINS petitions on myself so they would take me out of there” and place her in foster care, Ague says. CHINS denotes Child in Need of Services.
But the state social services have a policy that families do better together. And even though Ague is now a fierce, tough young woman in a gray, pinstriped power suit who has served a “juvenile life” sentence and graduated from Washington State University and testified about injustice in Washington, D.C. … there is a crack in her voice, an echo of old childhood hurt when she says, “They sent me back.”
At 15, Ague and two older male friends schemed up a plan to burgle a house because she knew the people and the people weren’t supposed to be home.
Except they were home. Ague says she tried to call it off, but the two boys went ahead. She waited outside, eventually creeping in to see what was taking so long. She saw a man tied up on the floor with telephone cord, a woman was similarly bound in the bathroom, and the two boys were yelling and waving kitchen knives at them.
“They got way crazy. Everything got pretty much way out of hand,” she says.
Because of her age, she wasn’t auto-declined. Instead, Ague spent 214 days in juvenile detention as a discretionary decline hearing to move her into adult court churned through several judges and five public defenders. Ultimately, a judge told her he saw “a kernel” of potential, kept her in juvenile court where she served a “juvenile life” sentence from 15 to 21 on two counts of kidnap and one of robbery.
She’s the rare person who started so young and was in for so long that she knows the JRA system perhaps better than some administrators — the good, the bad and the b.s.
Ague was in so long — five and a half years — that she took all the high school classes the JRA offered and fought the state to let her take college courses — at that point not allowed — that she paid for through prison jobs and church donations.
When she got out, she attended WSU and graduated last winter with a degree in criminal justice.
Politicians and corrections honchos applaud her gumption: She was a recent Governor’s Spirit Award winner, honoring people who have overcome obstacles … but has still encountered obstacles because of her past.
Spokane County pulled her from an internship working with kids in juvie last year because, Ague says, “They didn’t want to see the headline, ‘Kidnapper working in detention.’
“They were covering their asses,” she says. “If the goal is to rehabilitate, what is it when you finish successfully — and there are not a lot of success stories — what does it say when you are beating all the odds and they’re still going to throw bricks?”
She is seeking a pardon today, Sept. 9, appearing before the Pardons and Clemency Board in Olympia. (Update here.) Without one, she says, her voice dropping, “I’m pretty much screwed.”
Ague finds it infuriating, cruel even, that kids much like her — from poor families, broken families, uneducated families — are being charged as adults through automatic declinations and coming out with indelible Class A felony records.
It’s like the state is just herding them back towards prison.
“You look at the statistics,” Ague says, “and those are the kids that are all there: the brokest, the poorest, the ones that are the most vulnerable.”
What are the chances for reforming the system and eliminating automatic declinations?
Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, the Seattle Democrat, says change in the Legislature may take awhile, but there’s been progress.
She helped pass recent reforms that have allowed sealing of juvenile records in some cases and erased the “once an adult, always an adult” policy. Under the “always an adult” rule, an offender who was auto-declined into adult court would be always tried as an adult in any subsequent crimes — even if they were not on the auto-decline list and even if the offender was found innocent of the original charge.
Colgan, of the Columbia Legal Foundation, says legislators not wanting to appear soft on crime may wish to rethink their positions on auto-declines in light of new data. Current policies are creating more — and more violent — criminals, she says. That’s hardly being tough on crime. (See “Political Reality” sidebar.)
“We referenced a study the Centers for Disease Control did that found putting kids in with adults makes them not only more likely to recidivate [re-offend], but recidivate more violently,” Colgan says. “If the intent is to protect the public, is this the way?”
Griffith, the acting director of the JRA program division, says when it comes to abolishing auto-declines, “I would advocate for that. I am not fond of the auto-decline option — I think judges should have [involvement].”
Griffith says he doesn’t see any organized reform effort at this point, but says the Sentencing Guidelines Commission may be taking a look at juvenile sentencing in light of ongoing brain development research.
Rep. Susan Fagan (R-Pullman), personally knows Starcia Ague and is among the people who have cheered her success, even sending graduation presents. Yet she voted against the bill to allow juveniles to eventually be able to seal most felony records.
“If everybody was like her, I would be able to support the legislation, but I don’t think five years is enough time,” Fagan says. “Again, we are talking about paying our debt to society for how we injured society.”
Paying a debt to society is one thing, Ague says, but when society doesn’t help you fix what’s broken and lets you fail again and again … well, that’s something that also needs to be addressed.
“I’ve met so many great people — people like Representative Fagan,” Ague says. “But if you are someone like me — spent your life in an institution, been raised by correctional staff — if you don’t have some kind of a transition [to leave prison], it’s like throwing you to the wolves.
“No one ever … I can’t believe that not one person in the whole system managed to take me out of bad places,” she says. “I filed CHINS petitions on myself to get out of my environment and … I mean … they sent me back to my mom.”
In all the talk about adult punishment for juveniles, she says, no one should ever lose sight of the child.
Comments? Send them firstname.lastname@example.org. Heidi Groover contributed to this report.