State Supreme Court affirms sentencing must reflect the difference between children and adults. Now it’s time for the rest of state law to catch up

Friday, March 3, 2017
Two young men serving long sentences in jail for a robbing Halloween trick-or-treaters of candy and an iPhone when they were teens will get new sentences, thanks to a Washington State Supreme Court decision that affirmed that “children are different” and criminal sentences must take their age into account.

“The Court’s decision in State v. Zyion Houston-Sconiers affirms that children should not be automatically treated like adults in criminal courts, and that any sentence of a young person must take into account their youth,” said Vanessa Hernandez, Youth Policy Director for the ACLU of Washington, which submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. “We hope this decision spurs the Washington legislature to take a hard look at our state’s outdated laws that lead to the automatic prosecution of juveniles in adult court, and leads to the development of solutions that recognize the needs and potential of children.”

In its opinion, the State Supreme Court said that, “sentencing courts must have absolute discretion” to give sentences below mandatory minimums when sentencing juveniles in adult court “regardless of how the juvenile got there.”

But how the juvenile got there is still a problem, and it has a name: Automatic decline.

Automatic decline is a Washington state law that sends juvenile defendants to adult court if their cases meet certain criteria, such as if the defendants are 16 or 17 and charged with a particular offense. It moves young defendants from a system intended for rehabilitation to one intended for punishment, without considering the mitigating factors of youth.

Automatic decline is the reason Zyion Houston-Sconiers and Treson Roberts, the defendants in the case, were denied the opportunity to present the circumstances of their lives and facts of the case that might show that it’s more appropriate for them to be prosecuted in juvenile court. Zyion was 17 at the time and Treson was 16, and though they injured no one, Washington’s automatic decline law required them to be prosecuted as adults. Zyion was sentenced 31 years in prison and Treson to 26 years.

Automatic decline laws arose from the “tough on crime” approach to juvenile justice, which was in turn based on racially-biased junk science of the 1990s asserting that some juveniles were beyond rehabilitation. This false stereotype was disproportionately applied to African-American males.

The friend of the court brief filed by the ACLU-WA asked the Washington Supreme Court to review the state’s automatic decline law. The brief explains that automatic decline violates the due process rights of youth and eliminates the opportunity for a judge to consider mitigating circumstances about the offense and the individual before subjecting them to adult court. Automatic decline also creates harmful racial disparities and fails to reduce recidivism.

The Court was right to recognize youth as a mitigating factor in sentencing. However, by failing to address a reason underlying why youth are sent to adult court, the Court missed an opportunity to erase injustices that have existed since the 1990s.