State v. Bassett




Washington Supreme Court

Citation and Year

418 P.3d 343 (2018)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

WASH. CONST. art. I, § 14 (“nor cruel punishment inflicted”)

Nature of Case

After the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole sentences for youth under 18 in Miller v. Alabama, Washington passed a “Miller-fix” sentencing statute that still permitted LWOP for youth at a judge’s discretion. After being sentenced to die in prison for a crime committed at age 16, Brian Bassett challenged that “fix” statute and all youth LWOP sentences as categorically unconstitutional.


The Washington Constitution’s ban on “cruel punishment” prohibits all life without parole (aka “death in prison”) sentences for anyone under age 18.


First, the court held that Washington’s antipunishment clause, a ban on “cruel punishment” found in article I, Section 14 of the state constitution, “is more protective than its federal counterpart, the Eighth Amendment.” It reached this conclusion based on, among other factors, consideration of unique text, “state constitutional and common law history,” “structural differences between the federal and state constitutions;” and “matters of particular state interest or local concern.”

Critically, the court also applied the “categorical approach,” which turns on contemporary standards of decency and asks the court to test the state’s justifications for punishment against evidence, particularly brain development science in this case. It specifically chose this approach over the state’s “proportionality analysis,” which is “used for claims that a sentence was grossly disproportionate, not that a sentence was categorically unconstitutional based on the nature of the [] offender class.” Finally, under the categorical/evolving standards approach, the court found that all youth LWOP is cruel given (a) the “strong and rapid trend” nationwide (i.e., consensus) of abandoning JLWOP sentences; and (b) that sentencing kids to die in prison does not serve a legitimate purpose, given kids’ reduced culpability and ability to change.

Finally, the court added that JLWOP is cruel when analyzed under a multi-factor “proportionality” analysis.