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Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

See also: Johnathan Jordan letter clears co-defendant in murder -- but will anyone believe it?

Those rulings will probably be appealed, giving the Colorado Supreme Court an opportunity to weigh in. Some of the LWOP boys may already be pushing middle age in prison, but it's still early in the long court process of deciding their ultimate fates.

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Juveniles tend to have a more difficult time adjusting to prison life than older offenders. Johnson's initiation began in the Arapahoe County jail, when two large cellmates told him they would "toughen him up" for the journey ahead. They proceeded to punch and kick him repeatedly.

In prison he found more compassionate mentors, savvy inmates who schooled him in doing his own time and avoiding predators, gangs and debt. One was Kurt Pichon, who now works in outreach programs with at-risk youth in Colorado Springs and runs a company called XKon Research, which assists prisoners in transitioning back to society.

"Jeff was a doe in the headlights," Pichon recalls. But Johnson's youth and honesty also made him a highly effective speaker, in a scared-straight type of program called SHAPEUP that sought to keep young offenders out of prison. "He was one of the best we ever had," Pichon adds, "and he saved a lot of kids' lives."

Gary Flakes, who went into the prison system at sixteen and served twelve years for criminally negligent homicide, says that Johnson matured into a respected inmate who worked behind the scenes to defuse conflicts. "He's always been a standup individual, no matter if you're white or black," says Flakes — who, like Pichon, now counsels at-risk youth in Colorado Springs. "I have seen him working to prevent full-out gang fights in prison. This is something I know personally. The majority of those who went in as kids, you will find they are totally different individuals now. Like JJ."

Johnson admits he's had his share of "wrecks" in prison. He'd been in three years when he began to feel the full weight of the endless time stretching ahead of him. He became depressed and suicidal. Another inmate offered him a little heroin to take the edge off, and he was soon a regular user. He lost his visiting privileges and took some time getting clean.

In 2001 a new cellie of Johnson's was involved in a fatal attack on another prisoner at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. Johnson was never charged in the case, but he was shipped to the Colorado State Penitentiary during the subsequent investigation and spent the next four years in solitary confinement, protesting his innocence.

In recent years, Johnson has managed to turn things around. Evaluations done when he first entered the prison system indicated he was reading at a third-grade level. He has since completed his GED, taught himself Spanish, and devoured books on religion, investing and self-help topics. Improving his reading and writing skills was "a huge confidence-builder," he says.

"I used to pay attention to what was going on around me and let it affect me," he explains. "But I can't control none of this. Prison is a plethora of depression. If you get consumed in it, it's going to eat you up. So I try to live from the inside. That way I don't get caught up in the ignorance around me. I read a lot."

One piece of reading that has stayed with him arrived in an envelope mailed from another prison six years ago. Inside was a handwritten two-page letter, with a name at the end Johnson recognized from long ago. It began:

Hey man, hope this letter finds you in good spirits and health. Considering the situations I know you probably weren't expecting to hear from me. It's been a long time. But you were going through somethings and me as well. And now I am writing. You probably wondering why. Cause I want to clear my conscious. I know you could care less. But you might be interested in what I have to say.

First off, I want to apologize to you, for ruining your life. If you hadn't had met me at that particular time in my life, who knows...

According to the letter, Johnathan Jordan had found God, and I'm trying to live right by HIM. As Jordan explained it, living right meant acknowledging in writing that he was the person who had committed "this senseless murder" for which they were now both serving time.

I don't know if this is to late or anything for you. I can't give back the years you lost cause of me. I don't know what the future holds for you. Hopefully not in here. But I'm here to confess to you and to whoever else will listen on your behalf. You and me know I did it. You had nothing to do with it. I'm so sorry...

I don't even know what made me take it that far. He wouldn't give me the wallet. I didn't have intentions to kill anybody. Maybe just scare him. I did intend on jacking somebody though. I should have at least told you that part. I don't know what I was thinking through any of this.

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7 comments
saraandzoey
saraandzoey

John Leonardelli was my grandfather, not sure why but I had never heard any of this till now. I googled my grandfathers name and this came up. Does anyone know any current updates?

lrussel5
lrussel5

I've read many of the filed court pleadings and have to say that all of this is mind boggling.Where was the physical evidence in this case? So many gaps in what should have happened and what didn't happen, but yet he gets LWOP. His public defender really dropped the ball.  Jeff didn't understand what was going on and did not have another adult or advocate to help him.

I"m not saying I believe he is innocent of all charges, but I do believe that he has served his time. At one point he was in solitary confinement for 4 years - that is inhumane!  As someone before me commented, if an animal was treated that way the entire society would be picketing and up in arms.

As to Jeff's credit, I have to say that I commend him on using his time incarcerated to create a life for himself, educate himself, and to keep a positive attitude. Many facing his future would simply give up, whereas he has learned to read, learned another language, educated himself in many subjects, and one of the best - to speak with youth and to share his story to help others not to do the same as he has.

He has gained maturity and worked on rehabilitating himself, even without any thoughts of being released into society. It seems that during that time period, the courts were attempting to crack down on gang violence resulting in throwing away youths that didn't deserve that harsh of punishment.

klausa50
klausa50

I believe that the Department of Corrections must make every decision based on issues of safety. Managing  and controlling the population is paramount. 

Providing a certain quality of life, offering opportunities for education and rehabilitation are not top priorities. However, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," and "7 Habits on the Inside" are examples of programs that have successfully shifted many offenders from criminogenic thinking towards understanding how to be a responsible member of society if/when released. 

We need more programs.The offenders, especially the younger ones, have worked diligently to catch up and learn, obtain degrees, read extensively and improve themselves. Many have accepted responsibility for their past poor choices and horrific acts, but still sense that the world has thrown them away and forgotten them. The public needs to pay attention, because most of the prison population WILL eventually be released. Investing in education rather than more punitive measures is an investment that helps both victims and perpetrators of crime-

by offering all humans hope and dignity.

Randy144
Randy144

Alan, 

Again, another amazing thought-inspiring story.

I cannot help but notice that, throughout the story, and in any comment from any person in the prison system, there is no reference to rehabilitation. I was taught, as were many other citizens, that the purpose of prison was rehabilitation.  I would imagine that most citizens use that reference as part of their decision making process when they are on a jury, or when they hear about crimes and make mental decisions about how the offender should be punished.

If rehabilitation is not valid anymore, and all that a criminal gets is prison time, solitary confinement, prison brutality and a life without hope, we should all be changing our understanding of the prison system and of our Justice System.

Without rehabilitation, prison is nothing but cruelty and pain. Without a chance for rehabilitation prison is the pure representation of cruel punishment.

Who can imagine spending time in solitary confinement for 2 or 3 years. We would not subject a vicious dog to such a punishment. Imagine the Animal Activists reaction to the statement: "Your Pit Bull is going to be put in a tiny cage with no windows for 3 years, and abused." It would be on every News Station in the Country. Yet we treat children like this and there is no outrage, or even public criticism.

Your article should make people think about the cruelty of the current system, the lack of hope, the lack of  humanity, and the lack of Justice. 

It is certainly time to revisit and modify the states Felony Murder Statute, and find a way to handle criminals and possible innocent children with more humanity.

At this point it looks like the only person who really cares is you.

Thanks Alan.

Keep up the good work.

Randy Brown

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

There NEEDS to be a hearing to determine if a juvenile

will be tried as an adult. Texas calls such hearing a

'Waiver of Jurisdiction', and quite often can last a week or more .

Mad, insane D.A.'s as Chambers has demonstrated to be

 THROUGHOUT her term, have charged juveniles as adults w/o concern. 

This leaves enough cases warranting a review, WAY more than necessary, to tie up the courts at ALL levels 

for many years to come . Johnson, IF he gets some kind of 'play', won't occur til he is into his 50's I'm sure.

UNLESS they all get Patrick Sullivan's judge ! He appears to 'Show a lot of Love' to those who come before him based on Sullivan's slap on the wrist ....

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editor

@klausa50  

I'd like to publish this in our print edition, ideally with your full name. if that's okay, let me know at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

alanprend
alanprend

@Randy144 Thanks, Randy and Juan Leg, for your comments. This is not a popular issue, and I wouldn't want to minimize the crimes these men committed as adolescents. But as Jeff Johnson's story shows, the situation is often more complicated than it appears, partly because of the juveniles' immaturity and naivete about the justice system. The decision to take away a life, whether by execution or a sentence of life in prison without parole, isn't something we should take lightly -- and I agree that the equation should include other factors than simply a public outcry for punishment.

 
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