State v. Houston-Sconiers

At ages 16 and 17, Treson Roberts and Zyion Houston-Sconiers stole candy and cell phones from teenage trick-or-treaters on Halloween. As a result of Washington’s automatic decline statute, they were each transferred to adult court and subjected to adult mandatory minimum sentences without a hearing or individualized determination of the appropriateness of the transfer. Mr. Roberts and Mr. Houston-Sconiers were sentenced to 26 plus years and 31 years respectively.

Juvenile Law Center and National Juvenile Defender Center filed an amicus brief in the Washington Supreme Court in support of Mr. Houston-Sconiers and Mr. Roberts. Our brief argued that Washington’s automatic decline statute violates the due process protections guaranteed by Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966), establishes an unconstitutional irrebuttable presumption that youth are as morally culpable as adults, and fails to comply with the United States Supreme Court’s requirement that criminal laws take account of the unique characteristics of youth.

On October 18, 2016, Juvenile Law Center’s Deputy Director and Chief Counsel, Marsha Levick participated in oral argument on behalf of Amici before the Washington Supreme Court.

The Washington Supreme Court declined to address the validity of Washington’s automatic decline statute, but noted in their opinion “At oral argument, counsel for amicus contended that we should overrule Boot and strike down the automatic decline statute because it violates the constitutional principle that, as a matter of due process, ‘children have a right not to be automatically treated as adults.’ Although we decline to rule on the merits of this argument at this time, we do not intend to foreclose consideration of such an argument in the future.”

Nevertheless, the Court held that “because ‘children are different,’. . . sentencing courts must have absolute discretion to depart as far as they want below otherwise applicable SRA ranges and/or sentencing enhancements when sentencing juveniles in adult court, regardless of how the juvenile got there.” The Court emphasized that the Eighth Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court Jurisprudence require courts to consider the mitigating characteristics of youth, including youth’s diminished culpability, and use appropriate discretion in sentencing “at the time of sentencing itself, regardless of what opportunities for discretionary release may occur down the line.”