People incarcerated as children can be resentenced, says WA Supreme Court. Some prosecutors don’t want that
Last year, the Washington State Supreme Court handed down two rulings that could change the lives of people prosecuted as adults while they were still children.
The high court said these people deserved to stand before a judge, who could retroactively take into account their youthfulness when they committed the crimes that landed them in prison — often times for decades.
But two local prosecutors, Dan Satterberg of King County, and Mary Robnett of Pierce County, are challenging those decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court. They say the justices overreached — and that it would be impractical to coordinate resentencing hearings across Washington courts.
n March 2017, the Washington Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling: Because children are inherently different under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, mandatory minimum sentences for minors tried in adult court are unconstitutional.
The court also upheld that “sentencing courts must have complete discretion to consider mitigating circumstances associated with the youth of any juvenile defendant, even in the adult criminal justice system.”
That decision was born from a case known as Houston-Sconiers, which surrounded the convictions of two Black teens from Tacoma who were sentenced as adults for robbing other children, mostly of Halloween candy, at gunpoint in 2012.
Zyion Houston-Sconiers, then 17, and Treson Roberts, then 16, were each convicted of multiple counts of first degree robbery, among other charges. They received sentences amounting to 31 years and 26 years, respectively.
At the time Houston-Sconiers and Roberts were sentenced, state law required 16 and 17 year olds charged with serious crimes, including first degree robbery, to be automatically referred to the adult court system, considering they would age out of the juvenile criminal justice system on their 21st birthday.
“Children who were before the court and being received as children — as they should be — were unable to be sentenced as such, because of the rigidity of the law,” said Talitha Hazelton, a Seattle-based defense attorney.
The judge who sentenced Houston-Sconiers and Roberts in 2013 is quoted telling them that although he wished to exercise discretion in sentencing them, “it would simply be overturned by another court, and we'd be back here for resentencing.”
Previously, adult court judges were mostly bound by inflexible sentencing formulas baked into state law. Weighing factors such as adolescent brain development or a history of abuse when sentencing kids, for instance, was not supported under Washington law. But the Houston-Sconiers decision changed that convention.
“It really standardized and ensured that this was a consideration,” Hazelton said. “It also removed limitations so that judges could exercise full discretion. And if they thought that a longer sentence, just like for an adult was warranted, they would impose it.”
In two subsequent companion cases, known as Domingo-Cornelio and Ali, the Washington Supreme Court in 2020 decided that its ruling in Houston-Sconiers could be applied retroactively.
In other words, people who were sentenced in adult court as minors, prior to the Houston-Sconiers decision in 2017, could be resentenced by a judge who considers the mitigating qualities of their adolescence at the time they committed a crime.
“Imagine a case where a kid is in the car with a bunch of adult shooters, and he acts as a lookout, and then someone gets shot and killed. That’s different because maybe he got there and he got pressured,” Hazelton said. “This may be a situation where the factor of youth is mitigating, right? We know how kids get peer pressured into things.”
She said she calculated that currently 333 individuals and 541 cases would qualify for such a resentencing hearing. However, no such hearings have yet happened.
In an interview with KUOW, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said that he supports the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in Houston-Sconiers that factors surrounding one’s youth be a consideration when initially sentencing children in an adult court.
But he, along with Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett, argues that the retroactive application of the 2017 Houston-Sconiers decision is unconstitutional. Various state attorney generals outside of Washington have also backed the prosecutors' petition against the Washington Supreme Court's retroactive interpretation of Houston-Sconiers.
Satterberg said that his challenge is about a separation of powers, and maintains that the Washington Supreme Court has acted beyond its scope of authority by upholding a retroactive resentencing system. That’s despite a precedent for the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the retroactive application of new Eighth Amendment protections for children, as it did in 2016 regarding relief for people sentenced to life in prison while they were still kids.
“This case is fundamentally about the Legislature's right to design and implement a system, not only of criminal punishment, but also review of a second look for people who were convicted of serious felony crimes that they committed before they were 18 years old,” Satterberg said.
In addition to his arguments surrounding the constitutionality of the court’s decisions, Satterberg said such a resentencing practice would create a logistical nightmare.
“Resentencing by courts all over the state, without any guidance about how you’re supposed to do a mitigating factor review, is going to be a huge, expensive, slow, and confusing process,” he said. “It's not going to give people the kind of relief that they think they want.”
Satterberg also cited the pandemic and the limited operations of courtrooms across the state as a point of opposition to sweeping resentencing hearings.
The prosecutor said that he didn’t oppose people convicted of serious crimes as minors having their cases reviewed. But he said the state’s parole system — under which people incarcerated for a minimum of 20 years are automatically eligible for a parole hearing, with the presumption of release — has been serving that function.
“That was working,” Satterberg said. “That was the parole that was focused on the rehabilitation of the individual and some of the people that we sent to prison many years ago for very serious crimes, had gone through that process and were in fact released.”
One of those people is Jeremiah Bourgeois, who in 1993, was sentenced in King County to life without parole at the age of 15 for aggravated first degree murder. After serving three years, Bourgeois’ lawyers successfully appealed his case.
“My conviction was reversed and a new trial was ordered,” Bourgeois said. “But the King County prosecutor's office appealed that decision to the Washington Supreme Court. Ultimately, the higher court reversed the lower court's ruling, and my conviction was reinstated along with the sentence.”
He served 26 years in prison before being released through the state’s parole system in 2019.
Bourgeois is now a law student and the director of the Beyond the Blindfold of Justice Project, which advocates for people, such as himself, who were tried and sentenced as adults when they were children.
“So many of the kids from our neighborhoods were ultimately labeled with that super-predator myth, and given sentences as if they were 40 years old instead of 14 or 15,” he said.
Bourgeois said he didn’t understand why Satterberg, who has presented himself as a progressive, reform-minded prosecutor, would seek to reverse the state Supreme Court’s decisions around resentencing people based on the mitigating factors of youth.
“To have him promoting reform to now — when the moment comes — appeal it, and in cases of those who have been long recognized as less culpable than adults, and do everything he can to keep this decision from being implemented, is really a sad testament for somebody who has claimed to be a progressive prosecutor for so long,” Bourgeois said.
“The whole point of the Washington Supreme Court's decision was that, notwithstanding the fact that these men and women's convictions happened long ago, they have to be provided a [means of] relief,” he added.
The deciding judges in Houston-Sconiers wrote that “the Eighth Amendment requires trial courts to exercise this discretion at the time of sentencing itself, regardless of what opportunities for discretionary release may occur down the line.”
Under the state’s current parole system, anyone serving less than a 20-year sentence would serve out their full sentence without the prospect of early release.
Hazelton, the defense attorney, said it’s inequitable to have the mitigating factors of youth weighed in the sentencing of people convicted post-Houston-Sconiers, but not others.
“My kid, who's never been convicted of anything except this one thing where he’s ensnared with these adults … shouldn’t a judge be given the power and the ability to make an equitable decision based on the facts presented in front of them?” Hazelton said.
Hazelton also pointed out that judges aren’t obligated to resentence people under the rulings Satterberg and Robnett are challenging. Rather, they must only review one’s case through the lens of potentially extenuating circumstances of their youth.
In the meantime, a bill proposed by Senate Democrats would codify the Washington Supreme Court’s rulings on retroactive resentencing, for people who were sentenced after July 23, 1995 and before March 2, 2017 for serious crimes they committed as children. The bill is currently under review by the Senate Rules Committee.