J. Wesley Saint Clair Stephan M. Thomas
Prosecuting children in adult court originates in racist stereotypes and produces racist outcomes. Progressive prosecutors around the country have committed to ending this practice, which has proven to increase victimization, destabilize communities and drive massive racial inequities. Unfortunately, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is fighting to continue it.
Recently, the Washington Supreme Court held that judges are required to take a child’s youthfulness into account when sentencing them as adults. The court noted that “children are different” and that the U.S. Constitution requires judges to take this difference into account when sentencing them.
Satterberg disagrees. He has appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, a court that former President Donald Trump packed with justices who share his hyper-conservative judicial philosophy. To prevent this miscarriage of justice, we need state legislation to keep children out of adult court altogether, and we need prosecutors who are committed to undoing, rather than perpetuating, our racist systems.
Charging children as adults, also known as “auto-decline,” arose from the “tough on crime” hysteria of the 1990s, when politicians were tripping over one another to score points by demonizing young Black people. The “super predator” theory that led to auto-decline laws is a prime example. It held that some children, primarily Black children, were incapable of compassion or remorse. While the theory has been roundly debunked, the auto-decline laws and their racist impact remains.
A nationwide review of 2012 incarceration numbers found that 88% of children incarcerated in adult jails and prisons were youth of color. King County is no exception: In 2017, 48% of the youth charged in King County adult court were Black and until recently many of them were housed at the adult jail in Kent, where they were routinely kept in long-term solitary confinement and denied educational services.
Auto-decline makes prosecutors complicit in perpetuating institutional racism because the “super predator” myth ignores the environmental factors that often lead to system involvement. Justice system involved youth are more likely to live in underresourced communities that are plagued with failing schools, low paying jobs, poor quality housing and omnipresent police. Additionally, more than 90% of these young people have suffered an adverse childhood experience including sexual abuse, physical neglect, domestic violence and intergenerational incarceration.
A prosecutor’s decision to charge a child as an adult is totally discretionary, virtually unreviewable and made with little to no time to understand the young person’s psychosocial history. Prosecutors are given only 72 hours to decide whether to charge a child as an adult, and once the case is in adult court, children are subject to incredibly long sentences and face immense pressure to plead guilty to avoid spending decades in prison. Unlike judges, who must make and explain their decisions publicly and are subject to review from higher/appellate courts, prosecutor’s decisions are made behind closed doors and rarely subject to any review.
During our years working in King County’s criminal justice system, we routinely heard prosecutors claim, without evidence, that the vast majority of victims support harsh penalties for children charged as adults. This dubious claim leads to a false dichotomy between victims and those who have been accused of crimes; they often come from the same community, and many justice-involved youth are victims themselves. Moreover, prosecuting children in adult court has no public safety benefit — in fact, research by Washington State Institute for Public Policy has shown that it leads to more recidivism and victimization.
Satterberg is wasting precious resources, during a global pandemic, doubling down on a racist practice that fails to keep our community safe. He should be using his power and influence to hold failed systems accountable, undo institutional racism and to partner with impacted communities and public health experts to design a system that can hold youth who commit violent acts accountable in a developmentally appropriate and racially equitable manner.
We need state legislation to end the brutal practice of prosecuting children in adult court. And we need to hold our prosecutors accountable to both recognize and undo the cruelty and racism that underpins our system.