When a second chance for teens is a better alternative to prison

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…

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