After years of watching similar efforts crash and burn, advocates for 48 Colorado prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles finally saw some major reforms pass in this year's legislative session. Two bills that could lead to a significant reduction in sentences of juvie lifers passed both houses with strong bipartisan support, despite efforts by prosecutors and some victims'-lobby groups to derail or neuter the measures.
"We would have hoped not to have so many amendments attached to the end of the bills, but the guys are thrilled," reports Sharletta Evans, a restorative-justice advocate who heads the nonprofit Victim Offender Mitigation Initiative. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel. We know it could have been better, but the fact it passed is a glory in itself."
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on 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 penalty be based on individual circumstances; a one-size-fits-all sentencing scheme doesn't take into account an offender's age and other mitigating factors, the court decided.
But the decision had little impact on Colorado's LWOP population. For years, the legislature and the state courts argued over how to interpret the ruling, and in 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the ruling wasn't retroactive and couldn't be applied to defendants who'd already exhausted their direct appeals. But in January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ban on mandatory life sentences is retroactive, putting pressure on state lawmakers to get into compliance with federal law and provide a means for resentencing the juvie lifers, whose cases were all adjudicated before a change in state law in 2006.
The result? Senate Bill 16-181, which provides a resentencing scheme for juvie lifers, and SB 16-180, which sets up a separate step-down program and path to parole for offenders who entered the Colorado Department of Corrections as juveniles. Both proposals came under heavy fire from prominent district attorneys, including George Brauchler and Mitch Morrissey, who complained that the bills as originally drafted would offer leniency to such infamous teen killers as Dylan Klebold (who is deceased) and Austin Sigg (who's serving 86 years on top of a life sentence).
"It got very heated at times," says Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the Pendulum Foundation, a Denver-based juvenile justice reform group. "The DAs were absolutely against it and wanted it watered down. But they overreached."
As it now stands, Johnson says, SB-181 primarily benefits a handful of offenders who were convicted of felony murder (rather than directly committing murder themselves). Those individuals could be eligible for individual sentencing hearings that would allow the judge to consider mitigating circumstances and reduce the sentence to thirty years, less earned time; most others will be looking at forty years or more. "These guys are not coming out any time soon," she notes.
But SB-180 also provides a way for inmates who have demonstrated good behavior to become eligible for programs at less restrictive prisons and even possible early release. Evans, whose three-year-old son was killed by random gunfire in a drive-by in northeast Denver in 1995, has pressed for reconsideration of the LWOP sentences handed out to the shooters, fifteen-year-old Paul Littlejohn and sixteen-year-old Raymond Johnson. She says Johnson could be eligible for the step-down program in another six or seven years. "It's the beginning of something new," she says. "It gives the guys something to hope for, something to keep them going."
Both Evans and Johnson credit the bills' sponsors, including Cheri Jahn, Laura Woods and Daniel Kagan, for persistence; Jahn has been involved in juvie-lifer sentencing reform efforts since 2006. "It was her blood, sweat and tears that did this," Johnson says. "There were a lot of heroes in getting this through. I know now that if you stick to it, things can get done. Six months ago, we never thought this could happen."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.