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Reform for Juvenile Lifers Stalls Out in Statehouse — Again

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Lots of stuff gets lost in the sausage-making process that is the Colorado General Assembly. Amid all the pitched battles over gun magazines and the rights of the unborn, bills pushing education or sentencing reforms often get short shrift. This year is no different; activists hoping to see some significant change in the criminal justice arena have been feeling particularly frustrated by the quiet death a few weeks ago of House Bill 1292, which would have presented a new sentencing scheme for state inmates now serving life without parole (LWOP)  for crimes they committed when they were juveniles. Without such legislation, 48 people in Colorado continue to serve what the federal government has already declared to be illegal sentences. 

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment — the one against cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-4 decision didn't preclude the possibility that a teen killer could receive a life sentence, but it required that the sentence be based on individual circumstances, since a one-size-fits-all sentencing arrangement (like Colorado's) fails to take into account an offender's age and other mitigating factors. 

The Colorado Supreme Court has heard appeals from juvie lifers, seeking individual resentencing hearings. So far it has avoided a definitive ruling on those cases, strongly hinting that it's up to lawmakers to figure out what to do with the four dozen juvenile LWOP cases, all of them sentenced before the law changed a few years ago to a forty-year-max before parole eligibility for juveniles. And every year, the legislature has failed to come up with a remedy, ending up in an impasse between the prosecution lobby (which wants to simply convert all those life-without-parole to forty-years-and-then-maybe-parole-someday) and the reformers (who want to see something more like HB 1292, which proposed different sentences based on individual circumstances). In March, bill sponsor Rep. Daniel Kagan, an Arapahoe County Democrat, saw the support wasn't there to push 1292 through and withdrew it. 

"The Colorado Supreme Court put this responsibility on the legislature," notes Sharletta Evans, who heads the nonprofit Victim Offender Mitigation Initiative, "and the judiciary committee failed to come to a conclusion on the matter. Now here we are, right back where we started."

The district attorneys brought in crime victims prepared to testify against any leniency for juvie lifers, all of whom have been implicated in or found to be solely responsible for deadly crimes. But Evans is a crime victim, too; her three-year-old son, Casson Xavier Evans, was killed by random gunfire in a drive-by in northeast Denver in 1995. The shooters, fifteen-year-old Paul Littlejohn and sixteen-year-old Raymond Johnson, both were sentenced to life without parole. But over the years Evans has become increasingly involved in gang prevention and restorative justice efforts, even meeting with Johnson at the Limon prison three years ago.  (For more on Johnson, see my 2013 feature on the Lifers Book Club at Limon.) She insists that the proposals to reform sentencing for juvenile lifers have been greatly misunderstood.

"I would not be advocating for the lifers if they weren't juveniles," she says. "I believe at that age there's some inability to process consequences. They're impulsive. In many cases, they didn't see another option at the time. The ones who were in gangs, their validation was to do violence."

Evans says she wouldn't support sharply reduced sentences in all cases, making distinctions between the "thrill kills" and those who may have struck out at tormentors. "It takes a different turn if it's someone who's suffered throughout his life and been abused by his parents," she says."What has impressed me most about the juveniles — and I'm not speaking for all — is they have come to a place of remorse and accountability. They're not in denial about the harm they've caused."

Many of the inmates sentenced as juveniles insist they are changed men now, compared to the adolescent who committed the crime. But their sentences remain the same — cruel and unusual, perhaps, and certainly at odds with the clear language of the Supremes' ruling in Miller v. Alabama, but still the law in Colorado, with no change in sight.

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