A few months ago there was hope for juveniles who have been sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole or the equivalent too a life sentence. Legislation was being crafted to undo the harsh, cruel and unusual punishment of life sentences for juveniles. Colorado was once again heading towards juvenile justice reform which would change the opportunities for juveniles in conflict with the law.
All of that came to an end with the untimely death of Tom Clements, the director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. The Governor concluded that this was not the time for juvenile justice reform legislation. It had been a very volatile year for Colorado legislators with the gun reform legislation, civil union bill and a host of other major changes. While this did not further the position of juvenile justice reform advocates, the reality of the loss of Mr. Cements raised a host of questions.
First Gov. Hickenlooper was grappling with the loss of a friend and colleague potentially at the hand of another friends son. This became very personal and, as with any person, Gov. Hickenlooper needed to step back and review the facts. The failure on the part of parole and probation to monitor Evan Ebel gave him the freedom to move about and possibly commit horrible crimes. At the same time, it was a well publicized fact that Evan Ebel suffered greatly from long term incarceration in solitary confinement and was released directly to the streets. Something that Tom Clements focused on changing. Now the Governor needed to look at the whole system to evaluate how to move forward and bring lasting change. The hope is that Governor Hickenlooper will see the value in the work of Tom Clements and continue his vision for reform and rehabilitation to the prison system in Colorado.
At the same time the Governor must grapple with the fact that his state currently has a few hundred individuals serving illegal prison sentences based on the Supreme Court of the United States Rulings on Graham and Miller which declare life sentences for juveniles to be cruel and unusual punishment. the implications for state policy are that if a state does not take factors related to youth into account when imposing harsh sentences they are in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. There has been talk of law suits against the state based on human rights issues. There whispers of different ways to hold the state accountable on this issue, much like the law suits that brought about change to the over use of administrative segregation and solitary confinement in this state. It may not be necessary to bring about sentencing reform for juveniles.
Shortly after these events a Colorado Appellate ruling was published that declared a virtual life sentence of 112 years for a juvenile offender was unconstitutional according to the eighth amendment of the constitution and the recent SCOTUS rulings of Graham and Miller. Further, this ruling addressed the meaningful opportunity for parole, the fact that Colorado had developed the Youthful Offender System for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, and the evidence that juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated. This ruling has set the stage and given legal precedence for future legislation in Colorado.
While our lawmakers and our Governor could not find the strength or tenacity to bring Colorado into compliance this year, it may be for the better. The next bill introduced may be powerful enough to bring about another sweeping change to juvenile justice in our state. If lawmakers can find the guts and the conviction to make changes that will better our communities and get juvenile offenders back into juvenile courts and juvenile facilities......where they belong. It may also be the catalyst for change in our prison system. Maybe once again we will focus on programs, rehabilitation and re-entry so that those individuals released from prison have a chance at success.....another change that is necessary to strengthen our communities. We can only hope. We live to fight another day.
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