The injustice of Tacoma’s Halloween candy robbery should lead to a change in the law, writes columnist Jonathan Martin.
For the past few days, I’ve been asking friends who are parents about this scenario: On Halloween night four years ago, two teenagers dress up and decide to rob trick-or-treaters at gunpoint in Tacoma. They stick a .22-caliber gun in kids’ faces, scaring the bejesus out of them, but not physically hurting anyone.
In just over half an hour, the robbers get 96 pieces of candy, a few cellphones and a backpack or two. They’re caught red-handed.
What’s the punishment for the crime?
The kids were 16- and 17-year-olds. Both had juvenile records for nonviolent property crime. One was a foster child.
Should society treat this as serious juvenile misbehavior or the bloom of adult criminality? Aren’t teenagers worthy of a second chance?
In the case of Zyion Houston-Sconiers and Treson Roberts, the Halloween robbers, the answer by Pierce County was to throw the book at them. They are serving serious adult time — 31-year and 26-year sentences, respectively.
Because of the way the sentences were structured, they are not eligible for the usual one-third off for good behavior. Houston-Sconiers will walk out of prison at age 48.
If you think that’s justice, don’t bother reading further.
I see this as a case study in America’s mass-incarceration problem. The state decided 20 years ago — in the middle of the hysteria about “super-predator” youths — that a serious robbery committed by a 16-year-old automatically goes to superior court.
Despite falling juvenile crime rates, and a philosophical shift by the U.S. Supreme Court away from the harshest punishments for juveniles, Washington’s law remains.
Houston-Sconiers and Roberts lost their first appeal late last year. In a 2-1 decision, the state Court of Appeals urged the Legislature to reconsider that law based on “current scientific and sociological evidence, which indicates a need for the exercise of judicial discretion in determining the appropriate setting for juvenile cases.”
The dissenter, Judge Thomas Bjorgen, went further, writing, “To effectively close off a life in this manner, as though by the workings of a machine, offends the logic …”
Even the deputy prosecutor on the case, Greg Greer of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, acknowledges the sentences are excessive. “I believe the sentence is more than what (Houston-Sconiers and Roberts) should’ve gotten,” said Greer.
The facts of the case are clear: After three quick robberies — of two groups of trick-or-treaters and one adult man — in the Hilltop neighborhood, the teens were found in a nonfunctioning Cadillac with the gun and the candy. They were identified by witnesses, some of whom knew the robbers from school.
There was no question whether they’d be charged as adults or juveniles because of that 20-year-old state law.
Greer then charged the kids to the max, adding a “weapons enhancement” to each robbery charge. That meant an automatic five years for each bag of candy stolen.
When I asked Greer if that was justice, the prosecutor said he felt obligated to do so.
“Are we going to only charge (on behalf of) some victims, not others?” Greer said. “The discussion is not with me on this issue. It’s with the Legislature.”
That seems to me to be a cop-out. Prosecutors use discretion all the time. In this case, the teens would face less time if they had committed murder.
Greer did offer a plea deal of about 18 years — longer than either kid had been alive. Houston-Sconiers’ defense lawyer, Barbara Corey, said she urged her client to take it, but he declined. “They can’t imagine that amount of time,” said Corey. (Roberts’ attorney, by the way, was disbarred a year after this case went to trial.)
The trial judge also balked at the extraordinary sentence. But Washington does not give judges discretion over weapons enhancements or whether the teens should have been tried as juveniles.
The Legislature should take up the suggestion of the Court of Appeals and change the law. The nonpartisan Washington Institute for Public Policy has found that the law sending youths automatically to adult court, and adult prison, actually increases recidivism. This is known as the “felon finishing school” phenomenon — teens exposed to adult prisons learn stuff, and it is not good.
In the case of Houston-Sconiers and Roberts, they will likely return to society as middle-aged men hardened by decades in prison. So much for a second chance.