A split Washington Supreme Court has ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is a "cruel punishment," and so is unconstitutional.
In a 5-4 ruling Thursday, the majority affirmed a Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Brian Bassett, who was convicted in 1996 of three charges of aggravated first-degree murder for fatally shooting his parents and drowning his 5-year-old brother in a bathtub the year before.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it was unconstitutional for juveniles to receive automatic sentences of life without the possibility of parole. In response to that ruling, the Washington state Legislature eliminated mandatory life sentences for juveniles under 16 convicted of aggravated first-degree murder and required sentencing courts to take into account mitigating factors before sentencing a 16- or 17-year-old.
The change led to dozens of re-sentencing considerations, including Bassett's in 2015. While others received lesser sentences, a judge resentenced Bassett to three consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. It was the 2015 resentencing that served as the basis of Bassett's appeal.
Thursday's ruling removes the life without parole option for 16 and 17 year olds, and sends Bassett's case back to the trial judge for resentencing.
Four justices dissented, saying that the legislative changes made after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling were constitutional.
Bassett's attorney, Eric Lindell, said while the decision is obviously good for his client, who he says has made a lot of progress in prison, it's also good for juvenile justice as a whole.
"These life without parole sentences are reserved for the worst of the worst, someone who has no possibility of rehabilitating themselves. And that's just unfair to put a judge in that position and say 'Look, we're going to ask you to predict this person's future, even though they're only 15 or 16 years old,'" Lindell said.
Grays Harbor County Prosecutor Katie Svoboda said she was frustrated by the decision, which she said "ignores the horrific facts and the victims."
"I think it sends a terrible message that the lives of these victims don't matter," Svoboda said, adding that she thinks the decision will have an impact on public safety.
The decision makes Washington the 21st state to ban life without parole sentences for juveniles.
Kim Ambrose specializes in juvenile law at the University of Washington law school. She says the decision shows how the state -- and the country -- are rethinking what's fair for youth in light of what we know about child brain development.
"And it matters with respect with what we're trying to accomplish through our sentencing laws," Ambrose said. "Are we trying to deter crime? Are we trying to rehabilitate? Are we trying to incapacitate or just punish?"
As of last year, there were 14 people in Washington serving life without parole for crimes committed as teens, according to the Associated Press. Thursday's ruling could give those people a chance at resentencing.