The Op-Ed published last week, [“End the cruel, racist practice of prosecuting children in adult court” Feb. 10, Opinion] raised important legal issues but omitted critical facts necessary to evaluate the authors’ proposal: To cease the prosecution of any juveniles in adult court.

In more than three decades as a prosecutor, I’ve come to believe that most young people who become justice-involved can benefit from diversion away from court and into the care of community nonprofits that know how to communicate with and motivate young people. In fact, for the past two years my office has diverted more juvenile cases to community accountability groups than we’ve filed in Juvenile Court.

I also understand the overwhelming evidence detailing human brain development. We know that teens and young adults think differently than older people, that they may not fully consider the consequences of risky behavior and that they are highly susceptible to peer influence. 

The story of our Juvenile Court practice in King County is remarkable. Twenty years ago, we filed more than 8,000 cases annually into Juvenile Court. Last year we filed fewer than 750. Because of our work and partnerships within our community, the youth detention population hovers around 21 — the lowest number in the history of King County, which has roughly 2.25 million residents.

I also know that every year a small number of juveniles will commit acts of extreme violence. As prosecutors, it’s our responsibility to respond to violent crime with appropriate seriousness. Infrastructure doesn’t exist to divert these cases, nor are many of them appropriate to leave in Juvenile Court. Juveniles in adult court don’t face the same adult standard ranges, nor are they confined with adult inmates.

In considering the authors’ proposal to never prosecute any juvenile in adult court, one needs first to understand the law, the limitations of the juvenile system, and the nature and number of cases at issue:

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The law in Washington State: Juvenile Court jurisdiction expires entirely upon the 21st birthday of the person convicted. That means that a 17-year-old convicted of murder or other severely violent crimes in Juvenile Court will walk free in a little more than three years. They’ll be released with no supervision and no conditions as the court no longer has jurisdiction.

Why we have the law: See above. When a young person takes a life, there needs to be an appropriate degree of accountability and rehabilitation. The victim’s family needs to know that there is fair punishment for the harm they’ve suffered, and the community must be safe from dangerous behavior. Juvenile Court can be the wrong court for people who commit extreme acts of violence because it cannot address that person beyond age 21.

Crimes that qualify: Murder, manslaughter, serious aggravated assault cases involving guns or other weapons and first-degree rape are the most common qualifying offenses.

The number of cases has continually decreased: At one point, the annual number of juveniles charged as adults in King County was 80. I supported a recent change to the law removing first-degree robbery and other crimes from the offenses that qualify for adult prosecution. To treat those crimes seriously, the law extended Juvenile Court jurisdiction to age 25, but only for those crimes. 

In 2020, we filed 12 auto-adult cases. Eight of those cases were shootings, including three fatalities. Two were near-fatal stabbings, one was an armed carjacking and one was an armed home-invasion robbery. One of the 12 teens had already killed a man. Others had previously been given opportunities for rehabilitation. I made the decision in each of those 12 cases that adult prosecution was appropriate so that supervision could extend beyond their 21st birthdays. At sentencing, judges are free to impose any sentence without regard to the adult standard ranges.

The safety of all King County residents is my highest priority. When young people have violated the law and need counseling and direction, the community diversion option is often the best choice. However, when young people are accused of murder, aggravated assault or rape, the limitations of Juvenile Court become problematic. That is why our state has adopted this law, though far more legislative and system transformation is needed.