Dear Satterberg and O’Donnell: Regarding the Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Children of Color

A Public Letter to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg & Judge O’Donnell 

Regarding the Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Children of Color (Auto-Declines)

Dear Mr. Satterberg and Judge O’Donnell,

We write to you as community members who are deeply concerned with the ways in which auto-decline prosecution disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) youth. We echo the demands and spirit of the No New Youth Jail movement advocated by community members and the legal community. Incarceration is not rehabilitative, it is cruel and harmful for anyone, much less for children and youth. In fact on Thursday August 6th, Judge O’Donnell will sentence James and Jerome Taafulisia, who were auto-declined at 16 and 17 years old respectively. Despite the lack of consideration of their youthfulness in the initial filing of charges in Superior Court, we hope the court’s sentencing can recognize the two as children at the time of offense. That they too, are victims and survivors of conditions they had no control over as children. 

The courageous protests led by Black communities nationwide against state sanctioned murder and violence has led to several declarations deploring the racism of the criminal legal system by elected officials. In Washington State, Supreme Court judges have recognized the injustice of the system they oversee. Most recently, King County Executive Dow Constantine has declared that he intends to pursue Zero Youth Detention and depopulate the youth jail by 2025, recognizing how it is rooted in “systems of oppression.” 

Lost in the current discussion, is the terrifying phenomenon of children and youth being sentenced as adults through a process called “auto-decline.” Washington courts have sentenced children of color as young as 13 years old to face lifetimes in prisons. At 16 years old, they are automatically referred to adult court to face exorbitant sentences. This form of sentencing emerges from the 1990s racist criminalization of Black and other youth of color as inherently criminal “superpredators.” Continuing in this spirit of dehumanizing children is completely contrary to the message and spirit of the recent declarations by politicians. 

In 2017,  Black youth make up 48% of the 16 and 17 year olds charged in King County adult courts. Statewide data also reveal alarming statistics, with non-Hispanic whites making up a disproportionate 26.2% of youth who are auto-declined while youth of color make up 68.5% of such cases. 

Brain science has revealed that children are categorically different from adults. Children’s frontal lobes that govern impulse control, judgment and decision making are still forming. To charge and sentence them as adults amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for youth. Furthermore, children who find themselves in such predicaments are often exposed to trauma, violence and poverty, among other systemic forms of oppression. Rather than prioritizing the healing and support of children and youth who have undergone insurmountable trauma in their youth, your office and the criminal legal system chooses instead to dehumanize and punish them to lifetimes of incarceration. The complicity of state institutions such as DCYF, CPS, DSHS and the foster care system cannot be erased from the contexts in which these children of color find themselves perpetuating harm.

There are community-led strategies targeted at youth who have caused harm. Culturally competent and compassionate approaches led by community organizations locally have proven successful and effective in holding children and youth accountable while upholding their humanity. 

James and Jerome Taafulisia are two youth of color who will be sentenced in King County Superior Court Judge O’Donnell’s courtroom on August 6th. These two youth were charged as adults for their involvement in the events that led to the deaths of James Tran and Jeanine Zapata in the area known as “the Jungle” in 2016. They were 16 years old and 17 years old respectively, and had been subject to neglect perpetuated by the state’s foster care and social services systems. In fact, they were houseless and living in the outskirts of the Jungle, as wards of the State when the tragedy unfolded.

Sentencing these children as adults is unjust, cruel and racist.  We call on your office to immediately cease auto-decline and sentencing children as a systemic practice. Charging children and sentencing them to incarceration is unjust as is, charging them as adults is further cruel and unusual punishment. 

We hold you, Dan Satterberg, the leadership and judiciary system of King County to do the work of undoing “systems of oppression” that the criminal legal systems have perpetuated. We call on you to rectify the violence done to Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities and cease with the racist and harmful practice of auto-declines that allows for the sentencing of our young community members as adults. 


King County Executive Dow Constantine 

King County Prosecutor’s Office Deputy Chief of Staff Carla Lee

King County Council Member Rod Dembowski

King County Council Member Girmay Zahilay

King County Council Member Kathy Lambert

King County Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles

King County Council Member Dave Upthegrove

King County Council Member Claudia Balducci

King County Council Member Pete bon Reichbauer

King County Council Member Joe McDermott


 Asian Pacific Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG)

Creative Justice

COVID 19 Mutual Aid

Community Passageways

Decriminalize Seattle 

Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (FIGHT)

Murdered and Missing Indigenous People (MMIP)

Progress Pushers