Erika Vranizan


This Note argues that the O’Dell decision was a watershed moment for criminal justice reform. It argues that the reasoning in O’Dell should be seized upon by the legislature to take action to remediate instances in which defendants are legal adults but do not possess the cognitive characteristics of an adult sufficient to justify adult punishment. Given both the scientific impossibility of identifying a precise age at which characteristics of youthfulness end and adulthood begins and the Court’s repeated recognition that these very factors impact culpability, the current approach to sentencing young offenders aged eighteen to twenty-five as adults simply because they are of the age of majority cannot stand. Instead, this Note argues that Washington should add to its sentencing guideline departure statute a direct subsection that would require Washington courts to consider a defendant’s youthfulness at the time the offense was committed, if the offender falls into the young adult offender category.

Part I of this Note provides background information regarding the relationship between youthfulness and culpability and gives an overview of the historical foundations of juvenile law and its development over time. Part II describes the advancements in neurological and psychological scientific research that courts have begun to use in evaluating the youthfulness of an offender. Furthermore, Part II breaks down the combined immaturities of the brain—distinguishing between behavioral and structural immaturities—and examines how these immaturities present themselves in a young offender. Part III then describes in detail how the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized these advancements in adolescent brain science in their holdings in Roper, Graham, and Miller. Additionally, Part III examines Washington State’s response to these cases and highlights the importance of the findings from O’Dell for offenders over the age of eighteen. Finally, Part IV argues that the courts should be afforded the ability to depart from the sentencing guidelines for psychologically and neurologically immature defendants even when those defendants are older than eighteen years of age. Courts should be granted this ability through passage of new laws to amend the sentencing guidelines. Under such a scheme, it would be mandatorily presumed that defendants who fall within this age category meet the court’s “youthful” criterion and likewise have a right to a downward departure in the sentence guideline calculation. Further, upon such a finding, a young offender would be permitted to serve his or her time in the appropriate state juvenile detention facility where the offender could participate in programs and policies focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration.