Hundreds of Native Americans are serving disproportionately long sentences in Washington prisons because of poor choices they made as children. The bill pending in Olympia, House Bill 2065, would help bring hope to those who have been incarcerated, forgiveness to those they have harmed, and equity to the state’s tribal communities.
In 1997, when the now-debunked myth of juvenile “superpredators” was accepted, state legislatures passed legislation expanding the state’s authority to try children as adults. The law also allowed the inclusion of juvenile trial “points” in adult sentencing calculations. This means that people automatically receive longer sentences in the adult system because they were previously involved in the juvenile justice system, meaning they are punished twice for the same mistake.
In its 2023 session, Congress recognized the science of brain development and the disproportionate harm to communities of color and abolished the practice of punishing adults based on what they did as children. However, these reforms were only aimed at the future. Meaningful sentencing reform requires extending these reforms to those currently incarcerated. The new bill would allow people to apply for resentencing without considering the juvenile’s conviction.
Native American children were first housed in Indian boarding schools by the U.S. government beginning in the 1800s. Once separated from their mothers and fathers, these children endured physical abuse and sexual violence at the hands of federal “educators.” The historical and intergenerational trauma caused by that incarceration and violence is still deeply felt across tribal communities today. That trauma manifests as suffering such as intrauterine trauma and fetal alcohol syndrome, preventing many Indigenous youth from understanding the consequences of their poor choices.
Passage of HB 2065 is necessary to break the multigenerational cycle of trauma in tribal communities. Particularly because Indigenous people are the most affected by juvenile sentencing of any people in WA. That’s why the Colville Tribe last month joined a coalition of 21 tribes and Native American reentry organizations asking Congress to pass the bill.
The data is tough. As many as 41 per cent of Indigenous people in state prisons receive disproportionately long sentences due to youth scores. Of the state’s 29 federally recognized tribes, 23 have members incarcerated with one or more juvenile felony convictions. My own community on the Colville Reservation has the most adult members incarcerated in state prison on juvenile points, with 39 members incarcerated. National policies that have such a disproportionate impact on tribes must be reformed.
But our legal system will not be reformed if we continue to leave local residents sentenced before the policy change last year. If a law is unjust in the future, it cannot be justified against those already incarcerated.
Indeed, our citizens must be held accountable for their own actions and the trauma they have caused to others. However, it is not in anyone’s best interest to automatically increase penalties based on crimes committed in youth. That action will not make our communities safer, bring healing to victims, or help our people heal.
House Bill 2065 would allow state court judges to arraign people without doubly punishing them, ultimately harming incarcerated people, their victims, and our society. The aim is to achieve restorative justice between As our coalition assured Congress, our tribal governments and Native American reentry organizations stand ready to work with our nation and community partners to achieve these recovery goals.
I urge Congress to pass HB 2065 and help bring healing to our state.