Saying that "Washington state law is ridiculously lenient" when it comes to punishing juveniles caught with guns, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg on Wednesday announced proposed legislation that would increase penalties for those under 18 who illegally possess firearms. Satterberg, who was joined at a news Wednesday conference by state lawmakers, has the support of...

Share story

Current state law is so “ridiculously lenient” that juveniles have gotten the message that carrying a firearm is no big deal, says King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

It takes five firearms convictions before a juvenile is sentenced to 15 weeks in juvenile rehabilitation, he said.

But most never make it to that point because they either turn 18 before their fifth conviction, or they face charges in adult court for committing an assault or homicide, said Ian Goodhew, Satterberg’s deputy chief of staff.

Satterberg, joined by gun-control activists and gun-rights advocates, hopes to create a new message for those under 18 who carry firearms. They plan to ask state lawmakers to increase penalties for juveniles convicted of firearms possession.

“The present law sends all the wrong messages,” Satterberg said at a news conference Wednesday alongside Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and state Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, a former police officer.

Also supporting the proposed legislation, which has failed to pass the past three years, are Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes; Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington Cease Fire; and Dave Workman, of the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

Kline and Hurst said they will sponsor legislation in both houses this coming session that would require juveniles who are charged with a first firearms offense to spend 10 days in secure detention. A second offense would bring a 15- to 36-week stay at a juvenile rehabilitation facility.

A juvenile with a prior felony conviction who is later convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm would also get a minimum 15-week sentence, under the proposed legislation. Additional offenses would see increased time in lockup.

The plan would also include an educational element, so that teens would learn about the medical and legal consequences of using guns. A curriculum hasn’t yet been developed.

Under current law, most juveniles caught for the first time with a firearm receive deferred dispositions, where they are released from custody and aren’t punished even if they violate court conditions, Satterberg said.

Under deferred dispositions, juveniles plead guilty and are placed under community supervision for up to a year. If conditions of the deferral are met, the conviction is vacated and the case dismissed.

According to Satterberg’s estimates, of the 150 juveniles charged statewide this year with unlawfully possessing a firearm, about 60 would be sent to juvenile rehabilitation for a second offense under the proposed legislation, at an added cost of about $420,000. With the educational programming, that figure would rise to about $1 million.

But the legislation would likely save money in the long run, since the hope is some of the juveniles wouldn’t go on to “commit adult crimes and do adult time” in prison, which costs taxpayers about $36,000 per inmate per year, Satterberg said.

One such case involved Carlos Bernardez, who was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm as a juvenile in 2007 and received a deferred disposition. He was sentenced to six months of community supervision and 40 hours of community service, and his case was dismissed in late 2007.

His attorney later successfully argued to restore Bernardez’s rights to own a firearm despite objections by King County prosecutors, according to his juvenile-court records.

In January 2009, the then-18-year-old knocked on the back door of Chop Suey, a nightclub on Capitol Hill. After a brief conversation with three men, Bernardez opened fire, killing 24-year-old Joseph Ryan and wounding two other men.

Bernardez pleaded guilty and is serving a 30-year prison sentence.

Satterberg said Wednesday the proposed legislation wouldn’t impact teens who, with a parent’s permission, use firearms to hunt, compete in shooting competitions or go to a firing range, or those with permission to possess guns on their own property or in their homes — which is why Workman said his gun-rights organization is on board with the changes.

“The firearms community has never been opposed to cracking down on the right people,” said Workman. “Thugs with guns, and young thugs with guns, have never been our friends.”

Fascitelli, of Cease Fire, a 30-year-old nonprofit dedicated to reducing gun violence, said 6,000 people have died in Washington over the past decade due to firearms, including those who commit suicide with guns. Gun violence, he said, costs the state about $2 billion a year.

“What’s inarguable in our estimation is that gun violence is the most neglected issue of our time,” Fascitelli said.

Kline, whose district includes parts of the Central Area, Rainier Valley and Renton, said “we’re not doing kids any favors when … we treat this as a minor offense.”

Satterberg likened the effort to increase juvenile penalties for firearms possession to the statewide effort to reduce drunken driving.

Last year, Satterberg, Hurst and others sponsored successful legislation that tripled the penalties for killing someone while driving under the influence.

Information from Times archives is included in this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or