Tougher laws needed for juvenile gun crimes

The debate over the Founding Fathers' intent when they drafted the Second Amendment could fill a library.

But here's one thing we're sure they didn't have in mind -- arming young thugs.

Legislation proposed by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, Democratic state Sen. Adam Kline and Rep. Christopher Hurst would clamp down on juveniles convicted of gun crimes.

The measure is overdue.

It's not surprising to see Satterberg leading the charge. Seven murder cases in King County last year resulted in charges against teenagers who had recently been convicted of illegally possessing a gun.

All seven received a minimal sentence for illegal gun possession in juvenile court, then ended up facing homicide charges within a year.

Satterberg believes if the initial gun crimes had been taken more seriously, some murders would be prevented. That's a difficult notion to prove, but it's apparent that leniency isn't working.

Kids can lawfully possess guns for hunting or target shooting, and the bill wouldn't change that. But a teen convicted of illegal possession would no longer receive a slap on the wrist.

Currently, a first offense typically results in a suspended sentence and a few hours of community service. There are no significant consequences for the crime until the fifth conviction.

Some kids graduate to murder before that ever happens.

The proposed legislation that would require an automatic 10 days in local juvenile detention for a first offense. A second conviction would result in at least 15 weeks in a state Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration facility.

That longer sentence does more than deliver the message that the state is serious about gun crime. It also gives juvenile officials a chance to rehabilitate young offenders and help them avoid even worse mistakes than the decision to carry a gun.

Satterberg told The Associated Press he estimates the bill's cost at less than $1 million a year, primarily for housing offenders at Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration facilities.

The Legislature is facing another tight budget year, but this appears to be a good investment.

It costs about $37,000 per year to keep a prisoner in Washington state, so a 27-year sentence costs taxpayers around $1 million. That doesn't count the cost to investigate and prosecute the crime.

In other words, if the tougher law could prevent just one gun murder a year, it would pay for itself.

Of course, the argument can't be reduced to mere dollars and cents. What's the value of a young life redeemed through more aggressive intervention?

It's surely worth a try.