Lawmakers Debate Juvenile Life Sentences

May 4, 2016

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A bill is making its way through the statehouse that would allow judges to reexamine the cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it is unconstitutional for minors to have no possibility of parole except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

The court said it was cruel and unusual punishment. Currently 48 youths in Colorado were given mandatory life sentences prior to that ruling, many for heinous crimes.

"Murder is never OK, taking someone's life is never OK, but should we ever allow a second chance, a second look?" said Senator Cheri Jahn (D- Wheat Ridge), one of the main sponsors of the bi-partisan Senate Bill 181, which cleared the Senate 32-3.

Under it, juveniles must serve at least 30 years before they could be considered for parole. But, not all of the inmates would get the chance either. For instance, violent sex offenders would be excluded. But the idea is to put Colorado in line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

"They want to be able to petition the court for a re-sentencing hearing," said Jahn. "I didn't say get out, I said should they have a look? There are some who would stay in for the rest of their lives."

If it becomes law, a judge could consider the prisoner's age at the time of the offense, their ability to understand the consequences of their actions, attempts at rehabilitation, as well as the impact to victims. The measure has met strong opposition from district attorneys around Colorado who say it will return dangerous felons to the streets. Senator Ellen Roberts (R- Durango) voted against the bill, along with two other Republicans. She said it overlooks the voices of victims.

"There are many victim families who are now living in terror for what this bill could do. They are re-victimized each time as they come forward to tell the story, brings back all of these terrible memories," said Roberts. "Many of them said those memories actually are with them every day."

Almost every other Senator strongly backs the measure. Republican Senator Laura Woods of Arvada is another sponsor, and says not all of the juveniles committed the most heinous crimes.

"I'll tell you, there are a dozen or more that went to prison for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Debate has been fierce over Austin Sigg. He was 17 years old when he admitted to the brutal slaying of 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway in Arvada. Woods said under the bill, he would not be eligible for early release as some opponents worry because of the nature of his crime. Also, Sigg was sentenced after the U.S Supreme Court decision in 2012, so his life sentence is legal. He and others in that time frame are ineligible. 

The measure now heads to the House.