OPINION: Satterberg’s Appeal to the Supreme Court Harms Youth, Undermines Science, and Exacerbates Racial Injustice

by Dr. Ben Danielson, Sean Goode, and Anita Khandelwal 

Young people’s brains are still developing; they are more impulsive than adults and less capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. Researchers, teachers, doctors, and courts all recognize this scientific fact. Unfortunately, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, a self-proclaimed “progressive,” has chosen to ignore and even challenge this science with an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Washington State’s Supreme Court’s decisions providing protections to youth who are prosecuted in the adult system. If successful, he would undo necessary safeguards for young people and exacerbate the racial disparities that plague our criminal legal system. He should withdraw his appeal immediately. 

Research has shown that the frontal lobes of our brains, the area that impacts our ability to make thoughtful decisions, are developing until around age 25. Exposure to poverty and trauma can add to these traditional adolescent challenges, impacting the development of a young person’s brain and their need to constantly adapt their behavior to the environments that they live in.   

This same research tells us that young people whose behavior is criminalized are excellent candidates for rehabilitation and restoration: The majority age out of these behaviors as their cognitive skills develop and their independence grows. Additionally, an increase in healthy relationships and community support helps to counter the impacts of a stressful environment and enables different and healthier decision-making. 

In response to this research, the Washington Supreme Court issued several rulings to protect young people in the adult criminal system. In 2017, the court ruled that judges must take youth and brain development into account when sentencing young people in the adult system for offenses they committed before they turned 18. Then, last fall, the court made this requirement retroactive, meaning that young people who were sentenced before judges were required to consider the science of brain development were entitled to re-sentencing hearings. Satterberg is appealing both of these rulings.   

Why is he doing this? In a January interview with The Appeal, he said that he objected to these re-sentencings, in part, because they would be “a huge undertaking,” that our courts are “jammed and backlogged,” and that such a process would be “expensive” and “slow.” Besides, he added, “it’s not as if [judges] didn’t understand” that the person they were sentencing was young. 

Satterberg’s statements suggest he’s willing to throw away decades of people’s lives for administrative expediency. They also reflect an apathy to the communities that have lost loved ones to a system that is deeply racially disproportionate and a failure to embrace science.  

We also cannot pretend that 20 years ago judges understood what we know now about the adolescent brain. Sure, they knew that they were sentencing teenagers, but they had no idea what that really meant. They did not know that, for biological reasons, the person standing before them was more impulsive and more susceptible to peer pressure than an adult. They did not know how exposure to physical or emotional trauma could further impact this development process. They didn’t realize that the decisions the young person before them made were possibly an apt reaction to their environment.   

What’s worse, racial disparities and implicit bias combined to result in longer sentences. The young people charged and sentenced as adults are disproportionately Black. For example, in 2017, roughly 48% of the 16- and 17-year-olds that Satterberg’s office charged as adults were Black. And studies have shown that white people routinely perceive young Black people to be older than they actually are. Thus, a white judge might see a Black 16-year-old as an adult, and being unaware of the brain science and the effects of trauma, sentence them as such. 

According to the King County Prosecutor’s website, Satterberg’s mission is “to do justice.” This effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn these important decisions is just the opposite: He’s attempting to undermine justice and to ignore science. If Satterberg is at all the progressive prosecutor he claims to be, he should withdraw his appeal immediately.   

Dr. Ben Danielson is a clinical professor at the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the former medical director at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. 

Sean Goode is the executive director of CHOOSE 180, a nonprofit that works to transform systems of injustice while supporting the young people who are disproportionately impacted by those systems.

Anita Khandelwal is the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, which provides public defense services to indigent people in Seattle and King County.   

Featured image is attributed to Christina B Castro under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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