Excerpted From: Maddison Story, “Superpredator” Is Super Racist--The Case for Abolishing Auto Declines in Washington State, 21 Seattle Journal for Social Justice 495 (Winter, 2023) (256 Footnotes) (Full Document)


00NoPictureCurrently in Washington State, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who allegedly have committed certain violent offenses are automatically transferred to adult court jurisdiction. This process, commonly referred to as “auto declines,” transfers jurisdiction for three kinds of offenses: (1) any serious violent offense defined under RCW 9.94A.030 (“Serious Violent Offense”); (2) any violent offense under RCW 9.94A.030 (“Violent Offense”) if the young person has a certain conviction history; and (3) rape of a child in the first degree to an adult court. Washington State law also allows courts to transfer juvenile cases to adult court through a discretionary process in which the prosecutor, respondent, or court may file a motion requesting the court transfer the case to adult court for prosecution. Following such a motion, the court will schedule a decline hearing following the motion if the young person is at least fifteen years old and has been charged with a serious violent offense, the young person is at least fourteen years old and has been charged with murder in the first or second degree, or the young person has been charged with custodial assault and is already serving a juvenile sentence to age twenty-one. The court may transfer the case if it determines that transferring the case is in the best interest of the young person or the public, taking into consideration relevant reports, facts, opinions, and arguments presented by the parties and their counsel.

A. The Rise of the “Superpredator” Era

Prior to 1970, only eight states had automatic decline laws. By 1985, twenty states had enacted auto decline legislation. The wave of auto decline legislation took off across the United States during the 1990s when John Dilulio, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at Princeton University, created the false notion of “a new generation of street criminals--the youngest, biggest, and baddest generation any society has ever known.” In his work, Dilulio stated,

Based on all that we have witnessed, researched, and heard from people who are close to the action, here is what we believe: America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile “Superpredators”--radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including even more preteenager boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, and burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs, and created serious communal disorders.

In the wake of emerging twenty-four-hour cable, news broadcasters across the country spread the fearmongering by saturating televisions with images of youth of color in handcuffs and spreading the false notion that youth were committing crimes at exponential rates. While the racist portrayals of youth of color committing violence spread like wildfire, youth crime rates continued to plummet by unprecedented rates. And in this moment, the “Superpredator” era emerged. The media fixated on high-profile cases which stoked racist beliefs and painted dangerous images of youth of color as violent, amoral, and dark, with absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of future. With the help of the media, Dilulo constructed the “Superpredator” as the ultimate other who possesses all the characteristics youth do not. In response, auto decline laws--driven by racially motivated predictions of a juvenile crime epidemic--emerged.

B. The Emergence of Auto Declines

By the end of the 1990s, nearly every state legislature passed auto decline legislation in the most sustained legislative crackdown ever on youth of color in the carceral system. Locally, the Washington State legislature passed the bipartisan Youth Violence Reduction Act which Governor Mike Lowry signed into law in 1994. The legislature falsely noted in the bill that youth violence was increasing at an alarming rate and youth between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four were at the highest risk of being perpetrators and victims of violence. As a result, the legislature enacted the Youth Violence Reduction Act to increase the severity of punishment for youth who commit violent acts. The bill established auto decline laws as they exist today except for a few added offenses.

In 1997, the legislature in Washington State passed House Bill 3900 amending the Youth Violence Reduction Act. The initial bill proposed automatic transfers to adult court for all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds alleged to have committed a violent offense. The legislature did not report a purpose behind the initial proposal, though one article suggests,

Several polls showed strong public support for this proposal and proponents touted that the adult system would provide longer sentences for most violent juveniles and more accountability by providing a “strike” under Washington's Three Strikes, You're Out law. In addition, supporters felt that the juvenile system should refocus its efforts on younger, non-violent offenders.

The legislature amended the initial bill, and the bill that passed added only a handful of offenses to the auto decline list as opposed to all offenses.

C. The Truth Behind the Times

Youth arrest rates for violent crimes peaked in 1994 when the Washington State legislature introduced the Youth Violence Reduction Act, and transfer rates to adult court increased after the 1994 and 1997 bills were enacted. By 2003, the annual number of auto declines had tripled. Between 1994 and 2021, approximately 1,300 youth were adjudicated in adult court in Washington State. In 2020 alone, Washington State transferred twenty-four juvenile cases to adult court under auto decline laws.

By the early 2000s, Dilulio admitted his prediction was more than just wrong, it was the exact opposite of what occurred; however, the legacy of the racially motivated “Superpredator” era in the United States remains, and youth of color in Washington State continue to experience the harm of its racist legacy. The supreme court and legislature in Washington State have made recent attempts to reform the juvenile carceral system; however, the attempts have been largely unsuccessful. The legislature must abolish auto decline laws and invest in community-based alternatives to incarceration to eradicate the racial disparities and immense harm the Youth Violence Reduction Act has continued to perpetuate for the past three decades.

This article will first address how auto declines harm youth transferred to adult court in Part II. In Part III, this article will address the different ways in which auto declines harm the community and how the laws undermine public safety. Part IV will address recent legislative reform and why the reform attempts do not repair the harm youth face under auto declines, followed by Part V, which will address recent attempts at judicial reform. Part VI will include the following recommendations to overcome the racist legacy of the “Superpredator” era: (1) Governor Jay Inslee must immediately implement a moratorium on auto declines; (2) the legislature must pass Senate Bill 5122; (3) the legislature must pass legislation abolishing all juvenile transfers to adult court; and (4) the legislature must decriminalize most offenses in the juvenile carceral system and invest in community alternatives. Additionally, Part VI will address opposition and counterarguments to the above proposals.

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Although the Washington State legislature and supreme court have made efforts to reform the current landscape of the adult declines in the juvenile carceral system, the racist legacy of the “Superpredator” era perpetuates just as much harm as it did in the 1990s. Traditional reforms have repeatedly failed to reduce the harm auto declines impose on youth, their families, and the community as a whole. If the legislature is serious about eradicating racial disparities perpetuated by auto decline laws for the past three decades, it must abolish auto decline laws and invest in the community.