DENVER (AP) – Colorado’s district attorneys oppose a Senate bill to bring the state in line with U.S. Supreme Court rulings that mandatory life without parole sentences for youth offenders are unconstitutional.
Colorado ended the no-parole sentencing practice in 2006. But about 50 inmates in state prisons are serving life without parole for first-degree murder and other crimes they committed as youths between 1990 and 2006 – an era that saw violent crime spike and corresponding tough sentencing in the courts.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 Wednesday to approve a bill to help those inmates seek new sentences. It also offers guidelines for those sentences. The bill moves to the Senate floor.
A companion bill would allow any youth offender who has served at least 20 years to apply for a prisons transition program that, if completed, could allow them to seek early parole. A 3-2 vote sent that bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
District attorneys want legislation that would allow possible parole after a minimum 40 years in prison – the standard adopted for other youth offenders in 2006.
The bill has bipartisan support with supporters saying the state could be sued if it doesn’t comply with the high court rulings. It says judges may impose that sentence – but with credit for time served – or between 30 to 50 years with possible parole and credit for time served.
Prosecutors object to the time-served provision.
“We should make any new sentences consistent with the life without parole after 40 calendar years” for other offenders, said Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council. “The DAs would walk away from this bill if this doesn’t happen.”
Raynes said prosecutors also want to exclude first-degree murder convicts from any transition program.
“I could have a juvenile convicted of felony sex assaults who’s serving 100 years, and he won’t be eligible, but someone like Raymond Gone, a cop-killer, would be eligible,” Rayne said. “Where’s the policy balance in that?”
Gone, then 16, killed Denver police Officer Shawn Leinen in 1995. Leinen was trying to question Gone about a car theft.
At least 14 states, including neighboring South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, have eliminated life without parole for youth offenders since the Supreme Court in 2012 found it unconstitutional. In January, the court said its decision applied retroactively.
“Colorado is an outlier,” said Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the Pendulum Foundation, which advocates for youth offenders. “Not all of these guys are going to come out or should come out. But it provides the opportunity of a second chance.”
The foundation was created by the parents of Erik Jensen, convicted of first-degree murder in the 1998 death of Julie Ybanez of Highlands Ranch. Jensen, then 17, said he helped his friend, Nathan Ybanez, clean up the crime scene after Ybanez killed his mother, but that he did not participate in the killing. He is serving life without parole at Limon Correctional Facility.
LINK: Senate Bill 16-181
By James Anderson, AP Writer
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