The state Supreme Court recognized the injustice of sentencing juveniles to three decades in prison for a Halloween candy robbery. There’s more work to do in wiping the juvenile “super-predator” laws from the books.
THE Washington state Supreme Court last week took another step toward a more just juvenile-justice system. The court unanimously tossed out the absurd 31- and 26-year sentences imposed on a 17-year-old and his 16-year-old partner for robbing trick-or-treaters at gunpoint on Halloween night, 2012. Their crime spree netted a phone and 96 pieces of candy. No one was hurt.
The extraordinary sentences troubled the Pierce County Superior Court trial court judge and the prosecutor, but they argued their hands were tied by Washington’s fixed sentencing statutes. The Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, untied the hands of sentencing judges where children are convicted as adults.
“Children are different,” wrote Gordon McCloud, citing a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Her ruling reflects the undisputed research on adolescent brain development, and the need for courts to take juveniles’ immaturity into account when holding them accountable as adults.
As a result, the two defendants, Zyion Houston-Sconiers and Treson Roberts, will go back to Pierce County for new sentencing hearings. Unlike the last time, the judge can deviate from the sentencing grid and take mitigating factors — such as the foster-care upbringing of one of them — into account. That also applies to future cases, and may apply retroactively, defense attorneys said last week.
Gordon McCloud’s ruling is part of a much-needed reset of juvenile justice laws passed in the 1990s, when the theory about “super-predator” juveniles crested amid a rising juvenile-crime wave.
That wave is now long gone. The arrest rate for violent crimes by juveniles in Washington has fallen by 75 percent in the last 20 years, and the biggest evangelist for the super-predator theory, scholar John Dilulio, has issued a mea culpa. “Demography is not fate,” Dilulio told The New York Times.
The brain-science research — cited famously by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in other rulings — puts a final stake in the notion that juvenile defendants are irredeemable for rehabilitation.
The Legislature has an obligation to continue resetting overly punitive juvenile-justice laws. In 2014, lawmakers opened the prison door to inmates serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. This year, it should continue the reset and pass HB 1743, a bipartisan proposal to extend the age of jurisdiction for the juvenile justice system to 25. Oregon has already done so, and has seen lower recidivism for serious juvenile offenders.
Kudos to the state Supreme Court for recognizing the injustice of the sentencing in the Halloween candy robbery case. But the state must not stop there.