Simple change to juvenile gun laws not an easy one

When do you know that a crime is serious?

When it is seriously punished. A convict doing life without parole obviously did something more serious than someone doing 90 days in county lockup.

So with that in mind, is it a serious crime if a juvenile is caught with a firearm on the streets?

Every politician holding any office in either party will answer “yes,” of course it’s serious. But how does the law punish him?

Here’s a quick quiz: If a 15-year old is caught after midnight on the streets with a handgun in his waistband, he can serve as little as:

• a single day in juvenile detention;

• a week;

• 30 days;

• none of the above.

The answer is none of the above. According to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, he is eligible for no detention time at all.

And if he’s caught again?

The answer is the same. Not until his FOURTH conviction would tougher standards kick in – tough, that is, by juvenile justice standards. He’d still only do two to three months.

Satterberg said the message on the streets is clear: “We’re saying if we catch them with a gun and they haven’t used it yet, it’s no big deal.”

Should it be? Satterberg thinks so. It would take a simple change in state law to make it happen. But “simple” doesn’t mean “easy.” There is a built-in lobby against any tougher treatment of criminal activity, period, and that lobby has the advantage of state finances being stretched so thin that many incarcerated criminals are getting their sentences reduced.

But there is also precedent for getting tougher. Back in 1995, the state’s voters qualified the “Hard Time for Armed Crime” initiative, which soon became law (disclosure time: I co-authored the measure and chaired the campaign for its passage). It was written to add more time for any offender who illegally used, possessed or obtained a firearm. It has worked well, but the law amended only the adult sentencing grid. The juvenile code remained the same.

With bullets flying all over King County from weapons fired by teenagers, now would be a good time to change it. Seattle’s mayor has repeatedly insisted that the state should forbid law-abiding adults from carrying concealed weapons on city property, including parks. Aren’t Glock toting punks in street gangs a greater threat to public safety? And yet, not a single word from Mayor Nickels about tougher penalties for armed juvenile thugs. How come?

If Seattle’s mayor won’t act, and the legislature and Governor don’t act, then this issue is a fastball down the middle for Attorney General Rob McKenna. We’re not talking about a quality of life issue here. This is an issue of life and death. The body count is real. And the cost of doing nothing means the count will continue to rise.