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.”