By Paul Kiefer
Last Thursday, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court appealing a pair of Washington State Supreme Court decisions expanding judges’ discretion to consider the age and maturity of juvenile offenders when sentencing or re-sentencing them.
Satterberg argues that overturning the decisions would restore the proper balance of power between the state legislature, prosecutors and judges and reduce sentencing disparities between different parts of the state. The ACLU and criminal defense attorneys disagree, saying that the rulings have allowed judges to impose sentences in line with new research about children’s brain development, and to redress ongoing prison sentences that were excessive to begin with.
Though Satterberg is challenging decisions the state court issued in September, the true target of his appeal is a landmark 2017 state Supreme Court decision that courts, attorneys and prosecutors—including Satterberg —have already acknowledged as case law. The appeal caught many juvenile justice reform advocates off guard, re-igniting a debate about the limits and fairness of age-conscious sentencing.
The past three years of litigation about Washington’s juvenile sentencing laws hinges on six armed robberies on Halloween night in 2012. The culprits were a group of Tacoma teenagers, and their haul was mostly candy and cell phones. Nobody was injured, but because one of the teenagers threatened trick-or-treaters with a gun, the Pierce County Superior court charge two of the older members of the group—17-year-old Zyion Houston-Sconiers and 16-year-old Treson Lee Roberts—as adults. They received sentences of 31 and 26 years, respectively.
The lengthy sentences were the result of a Washington State law known as “automatic decline,” which requires prosecutors to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if they commit a serious crime, such as aggravated assault or murder, or already have a criminal record. Unlike charges in juvenile courts, the state attaches mandatory minimum sentences to adult charges, so while the Pierce County judge who sentenced Houston-Sconiers and Roberts acknowledged that the sentences were unfair, his hands were tied by state law.
Houston-Sconiers and Roberts appealed their sentences to the Washington State Supreme Court, arguing that judges should be required to consider a juvenile defendant’s youth and immaturity when making sentencing decisions, regardless of the defendant’s crimes. The court agreed, ruling that Washington judges are required to consider a juvenile defendant’s age during a sentencing hearing in adult court, and as a result Houston-Sconiers and Roberts also received shortened sentences. Because the Pierce County prosecutor didn’t appeal the court’s decision, it became case law.
Satterberg argues that the state court’s rulings in Houston-Sconiers, Ali, and Domingo-Cornelio allow sentencing judges to “impose no jail time at all for juvenile offenders who commit the most serious crimes,” stripping the legislature’s power to determine mandatory sentences that “reflect the will of the citizenry.”
Many juvenile justice reform advocates celebrated the decision, known as Washington v. Houston-Sconiers, as a landmark victory in the fight for fairer juvenile sentencing in Washington. Tukwila criminal defense attorney Emily Gause, who will represent one of the juvenile defendants before the US Supreme Court when it hears Satterberg’s appeal, told PubliCola that Houston-Sconiers prompted courts to formally acknowledge the science of brain development and adjust sentences accordingly.
Among other impacts, Gause said defense attorneys are now less likely to encourage juvenile clients charged as adults to take plea deals to avoid lengthy mandatory sentences. Now, she said, “Judges can really craft the right sentence for the specific facts of a particular case. Now the details about the role that a child played in a criminal act actually matter, not just the rubber stamp of what they were convicted of.”
Because courts and prosecutors in Washington have widely acknowledged Houston-Sconiers as law, Satterberg’s appeal came as a surprise to Gause, as well as to attorneys at the ACLU of Washington, which has closely tracked Houston-Sconiers and juvenile justice reforms in the state. Satterberg can’t appeal Houston-Sconiers; instead, he is challenging that decision’s constitutionality by appealing two September 2020 state supreme court rulings that build upon it: Washington v. Domingo-Cornelio and Washington v. Ali, both of which involve inmates who were charged as adults for crimes they committed when they were juveniles before the Houston-Sconiers decision.
In 2012, a King County judge sentenced Said Omer Ali to 26 years in prison for a series of armed robberies and assaults he committed in North Seattle when he was 16. The same year, a Pierce County judge sentenced Endy Domingo-Cornelio to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing his cousin when he was 14-16. After Houston-Sconiers, both men appealed their sentences, arguing that they should be eligible for re-sentencing to reflect their age at the time of their crimes. Gause represented Domingo-Cornelio in his appeal.
Once again, the court agreed, ruling in both cases that Houston-Sconiers applies retroactively. According to the sentence review unit of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the Ali and Domingo-Cornelio decisions could allow roughly 935 Washington inmates to request re-sentencing, including roughly 60 in King County alone.
Casey McNerthney, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said Satterberg believes that re-sentencing inmates convicted years (or decades) earlier would force victims or surviving families to relive their traumas.
But his criticisms of Houston-Sconiers are at the heart of the appeal. Satterberg argues that the state court’s rulings in Houston-Sconiers, Ali, and Domingo-Cornelio allow sentencing judges to “impose no jail time at all for juvenile offenders who commit the most serious crimes,” stripping the legislature’s power to determine mandatory sentences that “reflect the will of the citizenry.” Those mandatory sentences are attached to charges chosen by prosecutors, so the Houston-Sconiers decision also limits prosecutors’ input into sentencing and their options for plea deals.
Satterberg also argues that the Houston-Sconiers decision could worsen sentencing disparities—county-to-county, judge-to-judge, and racial—that mandatory sentencing standards are designed to mitigate. “You could have one judge sentencing a juvenile to 25 years for murder and another getting 5 years (or less) for murder,” McNerthey wrote. “These punishments shouldn’t be based on where the juvenile lives or on which judge presides [over their case].”
The ACLU of Washington doesn’t see changes to the power balance between judges and prosecutors as a problem. “Prosecutors will only lose power if they are recommending that a sentence be maintained that a judge would otherwise now find unjust,” said Jaime Hawk, the legal strategy director for the ACLU’s Washington Campaign for Smart Justice.
Gause said sentencing disparities may be inescapable, but said she believes judges will be better suited to make fair sentencing decisions than prosecutors or the legislature because they’re more accountable: “Other judges can review their decision-making.” Besides, she added, the Houston-Sconiers decision requires judges to consider a defendant’s age when choosing a sentence; it doesn’t do the same for prosecutors choosing charges.
If the US Supreme Court chooses to hear Satterberg’s appeal, Gause will represent both Endy Domingo-Cornelio. If the court rules in Satterberg’s favor, Hawk and Gause warned that Washington’s automatic decline law will be in full effect again. “Our state supreme court recently held that auto-decline is still constitutional because we have Houston-Sconiers” to allow lighter sentences “on the back end,” Gause said. But Gause also thinks that the constitutionality of the automatic decline law might be up for a challenge if the US Supreme Court rules Houston-Sconiers unconstitutional.