On Halloween night one year ago, five Tacoma teenagers did something stupid and despicable.
Armed with a .22-caliber handgun, they roamed a neighborhood and carried out four robberies. Such crimes are not unheard of, but one fact made this little crime spree stand out.
Two of the robberies were of three young teenagers who were trick-or-treating on Halloween night. Among the items taken were candy and a devil mask.
The common reaction was something like this: Oh my, children in Tacoma aren’t even safe while engaging in childhood rituals like Halloween trick-or-treating.
And then we forgot about it, at least until another news story appeared last month. Because of the seriousness of the crime, two of the accused – Zyion Houston-Sconiers, 17, and Treson Roberts, 16 – were charged as adults. And after being convicted by a Pierce County Superior Court jury, Houston-Sconiers was sentenced to 31 years in state prison; Roberts was sentenced to 26 years.
Neither will be eligible for good-time reductions.
Given reports of lesser sentences for crimes I consider more troubling, these sanctions seemed over the top. The standard range for first-degree murder in Washington is 20 to 26 years; for second-degree murder it’s 10 to 18 years.
But Judge John Hickman had no choice. Once Pierce County prosecutors charged the pair with using a gun, and once the jury agreed that it happened, state law requires a mandatory sentencing enhancement of five years for each charge.
It could have been worse. In a sentencing recommendation, Deputy Prosecutor Gregory Greer suggested the pair not be sentenced for the underlying crimes but only the gun enhancements. The alternative – up to 45 years for Houston-Sconiers and 40 years for Roberts – “is perhaps excessive,” Greer wrote, “though reasonable people could differ.”
Perhaps excessive? The sentences they actually received are excessive; the longer terms would have been downright draconian. And I’m not sure that anyone who differs with that assessment could be described as reasonable.
“I don’t defend what he did by any means, but I feel terrible,” said attorney Barbara Corey, who defended Houston-Sconiers. “It just makes me sick.”
To say these were troubled people is an understatement. Both had many prior convictions, and both were likely heading toward worse trouble with more victims. Both should spend a lot of time in prison. But lots of scarier people are serving shorter sentences than they are.
These sentences were born about the same time Houston-Sconiers and Roberts were. Initiative 159 was presented to the Legislature in 1994 and adopted by large majorities the next year. Called Hard Time For Armed Crime, the measure mandated sentencing enhancements for using dangerous weapons.
It followed closely behind a similar get-tough-on-crime measure called Three Strikes, You’re Out. Both were the work of conservative activist John Carlson, now a talk-radio host in Seattle. Both were built around the narrative of the liberal judge slapping the hands of dangerous criminals.
The measures may have been sincere reactions to public safety threats, but they were definitely partisan attempts to create wedge issues to boost the chances of Republican candidates. Democrats, however, outsmarted them by becoming as tough on crime as the GOP.
But while the measures take discretion away from judges, they place tremendous power in the hands of prosecutors. Whether criminals are charged at all, how many crimes they are charged with, how many gun enhancements are included, even whether gun enhancements are charged at all, are up to prosecutors.
Houston-Sconiers was even offered a plea deal that would have left him with a 20-year sentence, a deal he declined.
So Hard Time For Armed Crime doesn’t guarantee long sentences for armed criminals, as sponsors claimed. Often, it seems, it just gives prosecutors another tool to force plea bargains.
Houston-Sconiers and Roberts are hardly victims. But they did manage to spotlight how mandatory minimum sentencing laws might make us feel good but don’t always serve justice and are expensive. One month in prison for one inmate costs taxpayers about $4,300.
Despite good reasons to do so, I couldn’t find any moves among Washington legislators or the criminal justice community to begin considering systemic reforms.
Nationally, however, there is an emerging movement to rethink the criminal justice system — partly to save money and partly to make it work better. One aspect is to end mandatory minimums, or at least give judges some ability to override them if doing so would serve justice. Another is to admit that most convicts eventually get out and we need to give more thought to making sure they don’t reoffend.
What is striking, and hopeful, is that the move is led by conservatives, including Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and former Reagan Administration U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese. A reform campaign in Texas is called “Right On Crime.” Even the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has produced model legislation that would give judges discretion to depart from mandatory minimums.
ALEC’s model law and the recent decisions by the Obama administration — such as the decision to not pursue mandatory minimum sentences for some drug cases — focus on nonviolent crimes and drug crimes. They specifically steer clear of violent crimes and sex crimes.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he did get questions about the length of sentences in the Halloween robber case. But he said he thinks his deputies acted responsibly by recommending the lowest sentences under the law.
Lindquist said there may be room to look at giving judges more discretion, something they employ in many other situations. But he is not ready to discard laws such as Hard Time For Armed Crime.
“I think it’s a good law for two reasons: it gets dangerous criminals off the streets, and it sends a message that if you’re going to commit a crime, don’t bring a gun.”
I amended his statement by saying it attempts to send a message. Beyond anecdotes, there is little hard evidence that it has reduced gun violence.
“Yes,” Lindquist responded, “but I’m an optimist.”
Washington state has begun to divert drug criminals away from prison and into alternatives. It is behind many other states, however, in how it spends money on prisons and whether it is doing enough to slow recidivism.
Just this week, The News Tribune reported that Washington’s prison population continues to rise and the state Department of Corrections is asking for money to expand capacity despite closing prisons during the recession. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project showed that the average time served by Washington inmates has grown by 27 percent since 1990.
“We’re warehousing people at Harvard-tuition-level prices,” said former Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Adam Kline, D-Seattle.
Kline’s attempts at sentencing reform have not been successful because he has not found Republicans willing to sign on. Even a minor tweak to Three Strikes that would have affected just 16 of the 290 inmates serving life sentences under the law failed to attract a Republican co-sponsor.
Without the political cover that bipartisanship provides, Democrats — especially in swing districts — must continue to use the tough-on-crime rhetoric.
“It gets people elected,” Kline said.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657