State Legislature

Bills on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles moving through Legislature

District attorneys oppose bills sponsored by local legislators

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For Sen. Cheri Jahn, the motivation is clear: To bring Colorado in line with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole and to allow for judicial discretion relating to circumstances behind the behavior of juveniles accused of murder.

But for First Judicial District Attorney Pete Weir and his fellow district attorneys, the two Senate bills, SB 180 and SB 181, proposed by Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, and Sen. Laura Woods, R-Arvada, undercut the power of the courts and give short shrift to victims.

"It's frustrating when legislation is being proposed that dismisses what victims go through," Weir said. "It's incumbent upon district attorneys to speak up and say this is what our communities want."

SB 180 concerns a step-down program for juveniles who have been prosecuted as adults that would teach them life skills and reintegration into the community. The bill would allow some offenders to go through this program and then be considered for early parole.

SB 181 would stop life without parole sentences for juveniles. Only inmates who were convicted of felony murder or who were complicit in the murder may qualify for a sentence of 30 to 50 years.

George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, calls SB 181 "extreme" and "offensive" to victims and their families.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed both bills on a 3-2 vote on April 20. The package of the two bills goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee due to a fiscal note on SB 180.

"Because of strict state laws, judges had no discretion to consider things like circumstances when they were handing down these sentences," Jahn said. "It's not a matter of if these are awful crimes or not - they are - or if these individuals should be punished - they should. It's about when does punishment go too far?"

Amendments were added to SB 181 saying judges must consider the inmate's age at the time of the crime, and whether or not he or she can be rehabilitated. The impact of crime on the victims also must be considered. Another amendment to SB 180 makes offenders who were convicted of a sex crime ineligible for resentencing consideration.

Colorado has 48 juveniles who have been given life sentences without parole.

Weir and his colleagues strongly oppose the bills, saying they put the suffering of offenders over that of victims.

"District attorneys were not consulted during the creation of this legislation," Weir said. "I believe they give inordinate benefits to murderers."

Life-without-parole sentences for juveniles have been an issue of concern for Jahn since 2003. She said she was encouraged by the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case of Miller v. Alabama, which said sentencing juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional.

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court determined the unconstitutionality to be retroactive, which means the 48 juveniles in Colorado are eligible to have their cases reviewed. But Colorado has no process in place to do so.

Colorado eliminated life sentences for juveniles in 2006, and instead allows juveniles to be eligible for parole after serving 40 years.

"We are fine with the situation as is, but this bill (181) could mean offenders get off sooner than 40 years because of time earned," Weir said. "These individuals are some of the worst of the worst and have committed heinous, cruel, vicious murders."

For Jahn, besides bringing the state in line with the Supreme Court ruling, SB 181 allows judges to consider circumstances behind a juvenile's behavior. This might include developmental maturity, upbringing and involvement in the crime.

"I agree that some of these offenders should never see the light of day again, but we have a moral obligation to have the full picture," she said. "There are some who have gotten college degrees and been stellar inmates, even though they have no hope of parole. This bill doesn't say they would receive parole, but that they deserve a second look."

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