Politics & Government

Task force suggests easing Hard Time for Armed Crime law for teens

A string of armed robberies on Halloween 2012 scored two Pierce County teenagers some candy, a cellphone, a devil mask and a few decades in prison.

Now a legislative task force says that mandatory sentence enhancements for gun crimes shouldn’t automatically apply to juveniles tried as adults, and that judges should be allowed to lighten sentences for teenagers like the Halloween robbers.

The task force’s recommendations to the Legislature — which also have the support of the governor’s office — would erode part of the state law known as Hard Time For Armed Crime, a 1995 initiative that established mandatory sentence enhancements for crimes involving deadly weapons.

The law “doesn’t allow a judge discretion in these cases, and it really connects to that Halloween candy case, with everyone saying, ‘We don’t like this, but we have to do it,’ ” said Sandy Mullins, Gov. Jay Inslee’s senior policy adviser on government operations and public safety.

In the case of the Halloween robberies, teenagers Zyion Houston-Sconiers and Treson Roberts were given prison sentences of 31 years and 26 years, respectively, for being part of a group that held up two sets of trick-or-treaters in Tacoma. The group of robbers, armed with a .22 caliber handgun, also stole cellphones from three adult victims that same night, prosecutors said.

While Houston-Sconiers and Roberts were 17 and 16 at the time, prosecutors charged them with several counts of first-degree robbery — charges serious enough to cause their case to be automatically transferred to adult court.

Though no one was hurt during the holdups, the boys’ use of a firearm meant they were subject to mandatory sentence enhancements under Hard Time for Armed Crime. Those mandatory sentence enhancements alone totaled 26 years for Roberts and and 31 years for Houston-Sconiers, with no chance for reducing their prison time with good behavior.

The judge in the case, in an effort to reduce their sentences, followed a prosecutor’s recommendation not to sentence the teens on the underlying crimes of robbery. But he had no option under the law to lessen the enhancements for using a gun during the spree.

That’s what the Legislature’s Joint Task Force on Juvenile Sentencing Reform wants to change.

State Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, pushed for a task force to review juvenile sentencing procedures this year after hearing about the sentences doled out to the Halloween robbers, which she described as “excessive.”

The task force’s recommendations — finalized last week — ask the Legislature to let judges decide when to impose sentence enhancements for minors who are tried as adults.

The panel also recommends that the Legislature give judges the power to reduce sentences that mandatory enhancements have made “clearly excessive” for defendants under 18. Judges should at least have the ability to decide whether sentence enhancements for juveniles can be served concurrently instead of consecutively, the task force said.

Between 2008 and 2013, there were 341 juveniles statewide who were automatically transferred to and sentenced in adult court. Of those juveniles, 39 were tried for first-degree robbery and were subject to a sentencing enhancement for using a weapon.

Darneille said she is hopeful that the task force recommendations, if adopted by the Legislature, will help prevent teens from receiving lengthy sentences for crimes similar to those committed by Houston-Sconiers and Roberts.

The teens’ prison sentences exceeded the standard sentencing range for more serious crimes such as murder. Except for offenders who have many prior convictions for felonies or sex crimes, first-degree murder comes with a standard sentence of 20 to 26 years, while second-degree murder comes with a standard sentence of 10 to 18 years.

“Everyone agrees that something must have gone wrong there — they can’t believe that somebody would receive a sentence like that for a crime like that, when people who murder people don’t get those kind of sentences,” said Darneille, who co-chairs the juvenile sentencing review task force that includes state lawmakers, judges, attorneys, corrections officials and people involved in the juvenile justice system.

Kennewick Rep. Brad Klippert, the Republican co-chair of the panel, said he likes the idea of “giving more power to the local magistrates who actually know the case.”

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, another task force member, agreed.

“I don’t like it when judges have to apologize for the sentences they have to give to people,” Satterberg said last week. “To increase judicial discretion in cases involving extremely young offenders is something I think I lot of prosecutors can get behind.”

Darneille said she plans to introduce legislation early next year that would implement the task force’s suggestions.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, whose office handled the Halloween robbers case, said he hopes the Legislature proceeds with a certain amount of caution.

He described Hard Time For Armed Crime as “a good law that has served the community well for many years.” He said that armed robbery can easily turn into murder with a simple pull of a trigger, which is why sentence enhancements for using firearms were established in the first place.

Lindquist said the Legislature has already taken steps to address concerns about long sentences for juveniles, notably with a bill passed earlier this year. The new law allows inmates sentenced to lengthy sentences for crimes committed as juveniles — a group that includes Houston-Sconiers and Roberts — to seek review and early release after 20 years.

As the Legislature considers changes to the armed-crime law, Lindquist said one of the things to consider is making sure that offenders are sentenced fairly. Part of that involves ensuring that judges’ sentences are consistent, he said.

“We don’t want to see changes that are going to lead to unjust and inconsistent sentencing,” Lindquist said. “Judicial discretion is good, but there should be parameters.”