State high court upholds ‘three strikes’ law for those first convicted as young adults

The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the state’s “three strikes, you’re out” law as constitutional even if a defendant’s prior strike was committed as a young adult.

The law requires that a person convicted of a third “most serious offense” be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Young adult is not defined in the Supreme Court’s decision or the petition for review.

In hearing the matter, the high court consolidated three cases from King, Grays Harbor and Spokane counties in which people were convicted of their first strike at age 19 or 20 — and their third strikes in their 30s or 40s.

“The petitioners have not shown a national consensus against this sentencing practice, and our own independent judgment confirms that there is nothing to suggest that these petitioners are less culpable than other POAA offenders,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in the unanimous decision. She referred to the formal name of the law, the Persistent Offender Accountability Act.

Attorneys representing people convicted under the “three strikes” law argued that sentencing adult offenders to mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole when one of their prior strike offenses was committed as a young adult violated the state Constitution as “cruel” or was barred under the U.S. Constitution as “cruel and unusual.”

Susan Gasch was among the three attorneys who cited case law as well as psychological and neurological studies showing that parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to develop well into a person’s 20s.

Gasch, who represented a defendant convicted in Spokane County, said she and the other attorneys were trying to “extend some of the protections given automatically to juveniles to young adults.”

The high court disagreed, saying the three defendants did not produce any evidence that youth contributed to their crimes.

“We also hold that the sentences in these cases are not grossly disproportionate to the crimes,” Fairhurst wrote.

A juvenile is defined as a person under the age of 18, and juvenile adjudications are not counted under the three strikes law.

In 1993, 76 percent of the state’s voters approved the “three strikes, you’re out” law.

At the time the three defendants committed their crimes, “most serious” offenses included all class A felonies, second-degree assault, second-degree robbery, vehicular assault when the driver was the under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and any felony with a deadly weapon.

The Legislature this year removed second-degree robbery from the list of offenses, but did not make it retroactive.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Mary Yu said an examination of mandatory sentencing practices is required in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision that the death penalty law was unconstitutional because it was imposed in an arbitrary and racially-based manner.

“As a result, the range of offenses that require imposition of the most severe punishment the state can impose has been expanded. Persistent offenders who have committed robberies and assaults are now grouped with offenders who have committed the most violent of crimes, including aggravated murder and multiple rapes,” she wrote.

Yu said the questions about the death penalty also apply to the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Is it fairly applied? Is there a disproportionate impact on minority populations? Are there state constitutional limitations to such a sentence? I dare say that these questions are not just academic. They also reflect our values and beliefs about punishment and our criminal justice system,” Yu wrote.

“We should join the national movement favoring release upon a showing of rehabilitation and inject into our sentencing practices the exercise of mercy, compassion, and the fact that we know not a person’s capacity to change.”

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.