State v. Bassett, No. 94556-0, 2018 WL 5077710 (Wash. Oct. 18, 2018) – Defendant, age 16 at the time of the crimes, was convicted by a jury of three counts of aggravated murder and sentenced, pre-Miller, to three life without parole sentences. In 2015, he was resentenced under the state’s Miller fix statute, pursuant to which a juvenile offender may petition for resentencing. On resentencing, the court again imposed three life-without-parole sentences. Defendant appealed, arguing that a provision of the Miller-fix statute permitting reimposition of life-without-parole sentences violates the state’s constitutional prohibition against cruel punishment. Treating the petition as a personal restraint petition (PRP), the appellate court held that under a categorical bar analysis, the statutory Miller-fix provision permitting 16-to-18-year-old offenders convicted of aggravated first degree murder to be sentenced to life without parole or early release violated article 1, section 14 of the state constitution. On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court agreed; it held that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole or early release constitutes cruel punishment in violation of article 1, section 14 of the Washington Constitution.
The Court first concluded that the Washington Constitution’s ban on “cruel punishment” is more protective than the Eighth Amendment. It reasoned that the provision prohibits conduct that is merely “cruel,” and not necessarily “cruel and unusual,” noting that the framers were of the view that “cruel” sufficiently expressed their intent. It further cited its juvenile sentencing jurisprudence, noting that it had evolved to ensure greater protections for children beyond Miller and Graham, as well as the legislature’s “ongoing concern for juvenile justice issues.”
The Court next determined that a categorical bar analysis better considered the characteristics of the offender than the state’s traditional “Fain proportionality analysis,” reasoning that a categorial approach appropriately allows the court to include youth-specific reasoning in its analysis, as necessary for a categorical challenge based on the characteristics of children.
Finally, the Court concluded that under the categorical bar analysis, sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole constitutes cruel punishment under the state constitution. First, the Court cited the “strong and rapid trend” of abandoning juvenile life without parole across the country post-Miller. Then, exercising its independent judgment in considering the culpability of juvenile offenders in light of their crimes and characteristics, along with the severity of the punishment, the Court concluded that juvenile life without parole does not serve legitimate penological goals. Children’s diminished culpability weakened a retribution rationale. Deterrence did not support such sentences because juveniles are impulsive and reckless, and less likely to consider potential punishment. Rehabilitation could not justify a sentence that forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal. And, finally, incapacitation is not well served by a juvenile life-without-parole sentence because such a determination would require adjudging a juvenile “incorrigible,” which is inconsistent with youth and fails to recognize heightened capacity for change. Indeed, here, the defendant’s resentencing hearing illustrated the “imprecise and subjective judgments a sentencing court could make regarding transient immaturity and irreparable corruption.” For example, the defendant had an infraction-free record for the last 12 years, but the resentencing judge concluded that the record didn’t “carry much weight” because prisoners have incentives to follow the rules. The judge further minimized the defendant’s academic achievements as evidence of “simply doing things to make his time in prison more tolerable.” And the judge concluded that the defendant’s homelessness as a youth was evidence that he was more mature than kids who are not in that situation. Here, given the difficulty even expert psychologists have in determining whether a person is irreparably corrupt, especially in light of the extreme high stakes of the decision, judicial discretion to consider relevant factors “produces the unacceptable risk that children undeserving of a life without parole sentence will receive one.”
Thus, the Court concluded that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole or early release is cruel punishment, and that the relevant provision of the state’s Miller “fix” statute permitting such sentences is unconstitutional under the state constitution. Remanded for resentencing; on resentencing, the trial court is not permitted to impose a minimum term of life.