Washington tribes push for legislative change in prison sentencing: 'There’s been a disproportionate impact'

As the legislative session winds down, state lawmakers are debating whether they should take the next step in juvenile justice reform, following moves made last session that stopped previous convictions under the age of 18 from being automatically counted in adult court.

Last year, pushback stopped a retroactive change to the state law. Instead, a slimmed-down version of the bill passed which blocked people already serving prison time from re-sentencing.

This year, 57 tribal governments that make up the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), came together to support House Bill 2065 – which would allow prisoners a chance for their sentences to be recalculated without penalties tied to juvenile offenses.

According to the State Department of Corrections, 41% of Indigenous people currently incarcerated in Washington state have one or more juvenile felony adjudications in their criminal history. That translates to more than 400 Indigenous people who received prison sentences that are longer than what is currently allowed – if they were to commit the same crimes today.

Rep. Chris Stearns, a Navajo Nation citizen, and Sen. Claudia Kauffman, a Nez Perce citizen, were the prime sponsors of the legislation.

Stearns told FOX 13 that he believes this bill can bring healing to those who have been harmed by previously misguided laws that were written based on the theory that some children were inherently violent.


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"We’ve already decided this system is outdated and not supported by current science," said Rep. Stearns. "It continues to affect people disproportionately. We already know that Native American youth are more likely to acquire juvenile points at a rate three times what white youth acquire, so there’s no doubt there’s been a disproportionate impact."

The ATNI delivered letters to legislators this session stating that, "overly long state prison sentences resulting from incorrect choices made by Indigenous persons when they were juveniles, diminish their hope for forgiveness, redemption, rehabilitation, return to their families, and reentry into their communities."

There has been pushback along the way. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys fought retroactive changes to sentencing in 2023 and has returned to fight it again this session.

During a public hearing, the group’s executive director, Russell Brown, argued that victims of crimes are not being considered – that resentencing can be re-traumatizing in cases where people rely on criminals to remain behind bars.

"This goes back on all of those agreements and promises," said Brown. "Which, we believe, is absolutely non-victim-centric."

Some Republicans have argued that despite tribal calls for the passage of HB 2065, they’re standing with them by voting against it.


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"Our state constitution does not suggest that maybe crime victims be treated with kindness, dignity and respect. It mandates it equal to what the perpetrator is," said Rep. Jenny Graham.

"For that reason, in supporting the tribes, I’m standing for the victims of those crimes by saying we need to do a better job of representing them."

The latest argument that has drawn attention has been a disagreement over the cost of resentencing and the strain it could put on the legal system in our state.

Those fighting the bill have argued more than 6,000 adult offenders could require resentencing, though the Superior Court Judges’ Association has said the number would fall between 800 and 1,400 individuals.

"It’s just the right thing to do," said Rep. Stearns. "If you’re going to provide justice for some people, you really need to provide it for all. We have, in fact, left people behind."

"We don’t want to provide justice for some and pull up the ladder."

The ATNI has even delivered letters to legislators stating that Tribal governments are willing to work with state partners to work toward rehabilitative goals.

"Overly long state prison sentences resulting from incorrect choices made by Indigenous persons when they were juveniles, diminish their hope for forgiveness, redemption, rehabilitation, return to their families, and reentry into their communities," the letter stated.

It remains unclear whether the bill will survive its next hurdle, but advocates believe the biggest challenge is the Senate Ways & Means committee, where it remains unclear if the votes will bend in their favor.