US Supreme Court Denies King County Prosecutor’s Petition on Youth Sentences

By Paul Kiefer

On Monday, the US Supreme denied petitions by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to appeal 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. The move closes the door for Washington prosecutors who object to the state court’s reconfiguration of youth sentencing procedures; it will also prompt prosecutors, including Satterberg, to move forward with a slate of re-sentencings required by the state court.

Satterberg’s petitions, which his office filed with the US Supreme Court in December of last year, challenged two state court decisions issued in September 2020. However, those two decisions rest on a landmark 2017 state court decision that Washington courts, attorneys and prosecutors had previously acknowledged as case law; Satterberg’s petitions called into question the constitutionality of the 2017 decision, known as Washington v. Houston-Sconiers.

The Houston-Sconiers case centered on two Tacoma teenagers—17-year-old Zyion Houston-Sconiers and 16-year-old Treson Lee Roberts—whom the Pierce County Prosecutor charged as adults for a series of armed robberies on Halloween night in 2012. 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.

Many juvenile justice reform advocates welcomed the Houston-Sconiers decision as an opportunity for courts to formally recognize the role of brain development in crimes committed by young people—and to adjust sentences accordingly.

Satterberg could not appeal the three-year-old Houston-Sconiers decision; instead, he challenged 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 involved Washington 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 between 14 and 16 years old. 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.

Once again, the court agreed, ruling in both cases that Houston-Sconiers applies retroactively. According to 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.

In his petitions to the US Supreme Court,  Satterberg argued that overturning the state court’s decisions would restore the proper balance of power between the state legislature, prosecutors and judges. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s declined Satterberg’s petitions, King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson Casey McNerthney told PubliCola that Satterberg’s appeal did not “dispute the brain science that juveniles are different from adults,” but asserted that the AliDomingo-Cornelio and Houston-Sconiers decisions “interfered with the authority of state lawmakers to set punishments.”

In his original petition to the US Supreme Court, Satterberg wrote that allow sentencing judges to “impose no jail time at all for juvenile offenders who commit the most serious crimes” stripped 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.

The ACLU of Washington and criminal defense attorneys disagreed with Satterberg, arguing that the rulings are vital foundations for juvenile justice reform in the state,  both for young people who will face sentencing in the future and for those serving ongoing prison sentences that were excessive to begin with. “Our high court has made it clear that they will protect children accused of serious crimes in adult court by requiring judges to consider youth at sentencing,” said Emily Gause, the Tukwila-based defense attorney who filed a brief with the US Supreme Court opposing Satterberg’s petition. “Our Court doesn’t claim that kids deserve ‘zero time’… It just asks judges to be careful, know all of the mitigating evidence, and use their discretion to impose truly fair sentences.”

According to McNerthey, the King County Prosecutor’s Office will now begin the process of reviewing the sentences of current inmates who were charged as adults before the Houston-Sconiers decision. That task will be the responsibility of the office’s relatively new sentence review unit, created in March of last year after the state legislature passed a law empowering prosecutors to petition courts to reduce sentences for people convicted of felonies “when it would serve the interest of justice.”