Teen gun-possession bill gains support

A House committee approved a measure to toughen penalties for juveniles caught with guns. But it still faces real hurdles.
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Zack Hudgins, Sam Hunt, Larry Springer, Jamie Pedersen

A House committee approved a measure to toughen penalties for juveniles caught with guns. But it still faces real hurdles.

A movement to use mandatory minimum sentences to curb youth gun violence is gaining momentum.

The state House Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday for HB 1096, which has faced objections for its get-tough approach but also has received broad support. The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee, where it also must receive support before it can come to a vote on the House floor. The bill proposes tougher penalties for kids caught with guns, and pushes 10-day minimum sentences in juvenile detention to discourage gun possession.

Two amendments were also passed in the hope of addressing concerns that the bill was taking too much control away from judges and condemning youth who could otherwise be rehabilitated. Originally, the bill proposed mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders. One amendment eased that by making time in juvenile detention mandatory only on a youth's second offense. The other would require courts to seal the records of youths who complete rehabilitation and don't reoffend.

Seattle Democratic Rep. Jamie Pedersen, chair of the committee, said the 9-to-4 vote for the amended bill showed that it strikes a good compromise.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, said early on that he thought time in juvenile detention could be an opportunity for intervention in the lives of young people, particularly those involved in gangs.

American Civil Liberties Union representative Shankar Narayan objected loudly to the bill, however, saying that it was too quick to send youth into a system that hardened them and also left them with a record that could make escaping street life harder.

After the bill's passage out of the committee Tuesday, Narayan said he was disappointed that the bill had not been held in committee longer.

Previously, Narayan had said that his organization flatly opposed the mandatory sentencing at the heart of the bill, and that defeating the bill would be a top priority for the ACLU. Reached hours after Tuesday's vote, Narayan said he hadn't had a chance to read the bill's amendments, but that his organization objects in general to the continual toughening of sentencing laws.

Pedersen noted that both the amendments moved the bill closer to the ACLU's position. "The ACLU must be living in a parallel world on this issue," Pederson said. "If I were in their position I would declare victory and hold onto it."

Despite the passage of the bill out of committee, Pederson added, it still faces challenges both in the Appropriations Committee and on the House floor. Since locking kids up does cost money, the bill is vulnerable to claims that a tight budget year isn't the right time. If it passes that test, it still has to survive Democratic liberals' potential efforts to weaken the bill further, which could alienate moderate supporters, Pedersen said.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tom James

Tom James

Tom James is a feature writer and photographer from Kingston, Washington, who has reported from Seattle, Olympia, Guatemala, Jordan, and the Olympic Peninsula on topics ranging from drug use in the Navy to the silent epidemic of PTSD among refugees and what happens when fathers are deported. You can find his contact information at http://www.tom-james.net