Peter Callaghan: Excessive sentences for candy robbers built case for reform

Staff WriterApril 15, 2014 

The most important thing about Senate Bill 5064 isn’t that it passed the Washington Legislature, but that it passed with large, bipartisan majorities.

That’s because SB 5064 is about sentences for criminals, in this case criminals who acted before they reached 18. And criminal justice bills are wedge bills, the kind that are used in campaign brochures to accuse politicians of being soft on crime.

Not that some challenger won’t try. It’ll just be harder because this bill passed with just a single no vote in the Senate and by a 3-to-1 margin in the House. Since SB 5064 wasn’t about politics, it could be about justice instead.

First, it changes sentencing law for juvenile offenders serving mandatory life sentences without parole. In Washington, only juveniles convicted of aggravated first degree murder get such sentences, and the bill creates a way for the 27 such offenders to seek review of their sentences after serving 25 years.

That section comes in response to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama that life without parole for juvenile offenders is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional.

It was the second part of the bill that was more important. It allows inmates sentenced to lengthy sentences for crimes committed as juveniles other than aggravated first degree murder to seek review after 20 years. This is available even to those who received mandatory minimum sentences under past get-tough-on-crime laws such as Hard Time for Armed Crime.

In too many situations, mandatory sentences reach lengths that don’t look fair or just. Firearms enhancements are piled on top of each other and are served one after the other and good-time reductions in sentences don’t apply.

Tom McBride, the executive secretary for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said his organization wrote the original version of the bill, but his elected prosecutors at first balked at supporting the second provision.

“The Legislature didn’t have to deal with that issue,” McBride said of the section not mandated by the Miller decision. “But it is the more significant part of that bill.” And it will apply retroactively to about 150 current inmates.

Two of those offenders might be considered the poster children for the change. Zyion Houston-Sconiers was sentenced to 31 years in prison and Treson Roberts was sentenced to 26 years in prison for a stupid spree of robberies on Halloween 2012.

The pair, armed with a .22-caliber handgun, carried out four robberies. Two were of teenagers who were trick-or-treating. Among the items stolen were candy and a devil mask. Houston-Sconiers was 17 that night, Roberts 16. But the seriousness of the crime required they be tried as adults. And their sentences grew so long because they faced a firearms enhancement of five years for each gun crime charged by prosecutors.

McBride said these extraordinary sentences – considered functional equivalents to mandatory life sentences – cried out for change because current law has no safety valve, no opportunity for a judge or the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board to intervene when needed.

“They’d still serve 20 years,” said Hoquiam Democrat James Hargrove, the bill’s prime sponsor. “And they don’t get released, they get a hearing.” Prosecutors and victims can take part in the hearing, and the offenders will be released only if they are ready for release. The law requires the state to assess inmates five years before their review date and to create programs to prepare them for release.

Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said the Halloween robbers’ sentences “sent me off the rails.” She took to Facebook to complain that justice wasn’t served. And, as part of her focus on juvenile justice, she supported this bill as well as the creation of a task force to look more broadly at the issues. For example, 73 percent of adult offenders began in the juvenile justice system.

“I’m looking for points of intervention where we could have made a difference,” she said. Darneille also credits the late Sen. Mike Carrell and his successor Steve O’Ban, both 28th District Republicans, for making it a bipartisan issue.

And perhaps for taking it off the agenda for this year’s election.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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