(The Center Square) – A divided Washington State Supreme Court ruled last month that a “three strikes” criminal offender can be imprisoned for life without parole even if one of the qualifying felony offenses was committed as a juvenile.
The justices considered the case of Michael Scott Reynolds Jr., whose first “strike” came in December 2001 when, as a 17-year-old, he tried to rob a gas station with a BB gun. Reynolds was initially charged in juvenile court, but the case was transferred to adult court and he pled guilty to attempted first-degree robbery.
Five years later, in January 2006, a 21-year-old Reynolds and an accomplice forced their way into a couple’s apartment, held them hostage, and tried to rob them. He ultimately pled guilty to first-degree burglary and first-degree robbery, his second strike.
The third offense came in February 2018, when the 33-year-old Reynolds pulled a barista out of a coffee stand, dragged her to a nearby wooded area, and violently attempted to rape her at knifepoint. A King County Superior Court jury convicted him of first-degree burglary and attempted second-degree rape. The trial judge determined Reynolds was a persistent offender under state law and sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole, or LWOP.
On appeal, Reynolds argued the sentence based in part on his juvenile crime conviction violated state and federal constitutional protections against cruel or unusual punishment. In particular, he contended a “first strike” committed as a juvenile cannot be used “as a predicate” for a later mandatory life term as an adult.
Reynolds also argued that only 10 other states mandate life imprisonment without parole for “three strike” offenses. Of those, just three states look at crimes committed as a juvenile even if the offender is remanded to adult court. That disparity makes Washington’s LWOP statute “unusual,” and therefore unconstitutional, when compared to other states, he indicated.
But the high court, in a Sept. 21 majority opinion written by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, said there is “far from a national consensus” on the appropriateness of life prison terms without parole. The ruling also noted that Washington’s state legislature recently prohibited sentencing courts from counting a prior conviction imposed in juvenile court as part of an adult criminal history calculation in non-persistent offender cases.
But in cases like Reynolds, retribution against a persistent offender and segregating such an individual from the rest of society is justified because the “people of Washington are entitled to condemn adults who chose to commit serious crimes after having twice been given a chance to reform themselves,” the opinion stated.
And while agreeing with Reynolds’ assertion that “children are different,” the majority said Reynolds committed his third violent offense at age 33 and, at the time, “did not have the reduced culpability of a child.”
Concurring with McCloud in the 6-3 ruling were Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez and Justices Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Debra Stephens.
In dissent, Justice G. Helen Whitener contended that a juvenile offender “does not magically become an adult” even if their case is moved to adult court.
“Therefore, I cannot agree with the majority that using juvenile strikes to impose a mandatory LWOP sentence … is constitutional,” wrote Whitener. “Children are different and age matters.”
Washington’s Sentencing Reform Act was passed in 1981, and the persistent offender act was included in 1994, she said. Since then, juvenile sentencing laws have evolved with advancements in brain science showing that teens, whether 17 or 18, can lack maturity and responsibility – mitigating factors that are better assessed in juvenile court, Whitener indicated.
“The majority’s focus on Reynolds’ third strike offense, which he committed as an adult, fails to answer the nuanced issue before us” and “does not comport with our current juvenile jurisprudence,” Whitener wrote, later adding, “… his juvenile strike should be analyzed differently from an adult strike.”
Justices Mary Yu and Raquel Montoya-Lewis agreed.
Reynolds was represented by attorneys Jan Trasen and Lila Jane Silverstein of the Washington Appellate Project of Seattle. The state’s case was argued by Stephanie Finn Guthrie of the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Oral arguments were held in January of this year.
Amicus briefs were submitted by the ACLU of Washington, the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, the King County Department of Public Defense, the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Washington Defender Association, and Teamchild.