For 48 people who thought they would die in Colorado prisons, a window of hope has been opened.
Last month, a bill was passed by state legislature to lessen the sentence of 48 prisoners who were sentenced to life in prison without parole as juveniles. Each juvenile offender was tried as an adult and sentenced to an adult facility for their involvement in or the commitment of murder or multiple murders. The new bill would allow the prisoners to apply for parole after serving 40 years, although some can apply after 30 years if they’ve earned time for good behavior.
Why the change?
Between 1990-2006, the state of Colorado wanted to crack down on crime with harsh sentences and severe punishments. To that end, the state made it legal to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But that sentence was a little too harsh for the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2006, the law allowing juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole was reversed in Colorado. Six years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the sentence is a “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Unfortunately, this did not allow the 48 prisoners to simply fly free. The state may have gone too far, but it has still taken four years for legislation regarding the prisoners’ sentences to reach the governor’s desk.
Advocates and supporters of the bill argue that sentencing juveniles to adult prisons is too harsh. Juveniles are typically tried differently than adults and should face less harsh sentences.
To put this in perspective, these 48 prisoners have actually spent more years of their life in prison than in the free world. For mistakes they made before they were even adults.
Understandably, the bill is controversial. Some are concerned that the bill and the release of the prisoners will cause harsh emotional trauma to the families of the victims.
But under the bill, these prisoners still have many years to serve before they can apply for parole and potentially achieve the freedom they have been dreaming about for years.
This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea. In some parts of Colorado, district courts handle juvenile matters. And it is possible that for violent or especially serious crimes, it is possible that a teenager can be charged as an adult.
But Denver has a separate juvenile state court altogether. When a juvenile is charged with breaking criminal laws, they will be charged in a civil court. And while incarceration in a juvenile delinquency center is possible depending on the crime, a guilty teenager can also be given a sentence of treatment or alternative schooling.
Those Sentenced as Juveniles Have a Chance at a Clean Slate
If your teen has been arrested, they face serious consequences. But as juveniles, they also have more opportunities for forgiveness and a lighter sentence.
Expungement is the process of having your public record cleared of any past charges, and in Colorado, it’s only available to those who committed crimes as a juvenile.
Your teen may not be eligible to have his or her record expunged for committing a violent crime or being charged (not all offenses qualify), but filling out a few forms can erase many tickets, drug charges, or less serious arrests committed by teens.
As a society, we tend to want to punish those who have done wrong, but this isn’t always the best way to make things better. Studies show that children and adults view crime, punishment, and consequences differently. The crimes you may have been tempted to (or did) commit as a teenager might be unthinkable now.
This lack of mental maturity is supposed to be taken into consideration in court. For a while, our state seemed to forget this in the name of “cracking down,” but we finally appear to be headed back in the right direction.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.