President Barack Obama recently commuted the sentences of eight federal prisoners serving absurdly long sentences for crack cocaine convictions, noting that such harsh punishments couldn't be imposed under current sentencing schemes. But Colorado's recent governors have been reluctant to exercise their own clemency powers, even when doing so could save millions in prison costs without risking public safety -- as explained in my 2009 feature "The Quality of Mercy," which focused on six prisoners whose cases raise serious questions about sentencing inequities.
Four years later, not much has changed for three of the six inmates we profiled. Donny Andrews is still serving 81 years and a day for a series of nonviolent property and drug crimes, a casualty of the lock-em-up frenzy of the 1980s. In his 25 years behind bars, he's seen killers and rapists do their time and get sprung, while he remains stuck in place, having taken just about every self-improvement program the prison system has to offer. Previously denied clemency, he's now preparing another application, with strong support from family and many ex-offenders who met him inside. His earliest parole date is still more than a decade away, which means that, barring gubernatorial intervention, we can expect to shell out another four or five hundred thousand dollars for his incarceration, on top of the $750,000 or so already spent to keep him in prison.
Jacob Ind remains one of more than four dozen Colorado inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles; in Ind's case, the crime was the 1992 murder of his mother and stepfather after what he and his older brother say was years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted in adult court are unconstitutional, but Colorado is still sorting out how to approach the individual resentencing hearings that may result from that ruling.
And Jacinto Perez, who originally landed in prison for stealing three packs of cigarettes, is still serving a 24-year term for a shank found in his cell, just when he was on the verge of finishing his original sentence and being deported to Mexico -- an example of how the harsh habitual criminal sentencing policy of former Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers turned chronic low-level offenders into long-term guests of the state.
But for the three women featured in my article, things are looking up. Tami Richards, convicted of child abuse resulting in death after her two children died in an apartment fire while she was out drinking, served more than a decade of her 32-year sentence, worked hard on turning her blighted life around, and is now on parole in another state. Krystal Voss, who has always maintained her innocence and is still appealing her 2004 conviction in the death of her 19-month-old son after a deeply flawed trial, was denied parole but is now in community corrections, a sign of her exemplary record and low risk assessment; she faces another parole hearing in the spring.
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And Tara Perry -- condemned to a 66-year sentence as a teenager after getting enmeshed in a crime spree with an older, suicidal boyfriend, as detailed in last year's "The Girl Who Fell to Earth" -- faced the parole board for the first time a few weeks ago. Thanks largely to a tremendous outpouring of support from counselors, staff, family and others who've worked with her during the past 14 years, she sailed through. Perry still has an additional three-year sentence to serve in Wyoming for a Cheyenne home invasion that occurred during her boyfriend's 1999 rampage, but the end of her journey through the system appears to be in sight.
"It is bittersweet," Perry says of the parole decision. "The plus is that I will simultaneously satisfy Colorado parole...Considering that this has been almost 15 years of turmoil, 36 months feels minor."
For dozens of other Colorado prisoners, though, serving long sentences for drug crimes or other nonviolent offenses, the light at the end of the tunnel is still far, far away.
Have a tip for this author? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. From our prison archives: Joe Arridy was the happiest man on Colorado's Death Row