Legislation would assume youths under age 14 incapable of crime

Prosecutors worry bill would create too many additional procedures and clog courts.

  • Wednesday, February 20, 2019 2:30pm
  • News

By Emma Scher

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — Throughout the past six years, more than 3,000 children between 12 and 14 years old have been charged with crimes in the state’s juvenile courts.

Senate Bill 5735 aims to reduce that number by raising the age that a child is presumed to be incapable of a crime from 11 to 14.

As the current law stands, children 7 or younger are legally incapable of committing a crime.

A child between 8 and 11 is assumed to be capable of crime, but that presumption can be overcome by evidence presented by the prosecutor.

Youths 12 and older are presumed to have the capacity to commit a crime.

In the past three years, states including California, Texas, Kansas and Colorado also have pushed for changes in their juvenile detention systems.

Last year, the state Supreme Court banned sentencing 16- and 17-year-old teens to life without parole.

“We’re seeing that around this country that conversation is happening about what’s appropriate,” said Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, the prime sponsor of SB 5735.

“When is it inappropriate to even perceive that a child of that age is committing a crime?”

In Washington state, children 12 through 14 have the ability to challenge the court for a re-evaluation of their capability to commit a crime.

SB 5735 would presume that children younger than 14 are incapable, and would require prosecutors to provide evidence of competency in addition to evidence of a crime.

Russell Brown, executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said he anticipates this law will create more trials, not keep children out of detention.

“They would still potentially be charged, still potentially be arrested and there would be then a court hearing for the state to provide almost a pseudo trial … as to whether or not this particular juvenile has the capacity,” Brown said.

“It would create the necessity for a lot more hearings, it wouldn’t necessarily change … the capacity of a child to make that decision.”

The presumption can be removed by proof that the child has the ability to understand the act or neglect, or know that the act was wrong.

A fiscal note has been requested, but has not yet been received.

“So we’re weighing the cost of the court next to a child’s life,” Darneille said. “That’s really what we’re coming down to.”

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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