A Washington state court ruling opens the door for young offenders facing long prison sentences to plead their age and possibly obtain early release, reports the Seattle Times. The opinion conforms Washington law with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that acknowledge emerging science showing that the brains of juvenile and young offenders are not fully developed, saying that they often lack impulse control and have an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility.” The Washington court concluded that, “Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”
The ruling gives a new sentencing hearing for Brian Ronquillo, who as a 16-year old gang member was convicted in the drive-by murder of a high school student in 1994. Two intended targets were not hurt, but a girl, 16, was hit in the head and died on the sidewalk. Ronquillo was sentenced to 51 years, which the appeals court said amounts to a de facto sentence of life without parole. Under one Supreme Court ruling, such exceptionally long sentences given to youngsters are a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Prof. Paul Holland of the Seattle University School of Law said, “This is a very important decision,” continuing a trend of rulings at both the state and national level acknowledging that juvenile and young offenders should be treated differently under the law if they're charged as adults.