Kennedy: Colorado’s life-without-parole parole laws deserve change

Sean Kennedy

Coloradans have a unique opportunity to reform criminal justice in our state.

State lawmakers are currently considering changing the laws surrounding life-without-parole sentences for youth. According to the Coloradoan, the state ended no-parole sentencing in 2006, six years before the practice was ruled to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, there are still about 50 prisoners in Colorado serving life-without-parole sentences they received before 2006, which has spurred discussion among state legislators of potential changes to state law.

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A new bill being debated by state lawmakers would allow these inmates, among other youth offenders, the chance to apply for a prison transition program after 20 years served that could allow them to seek early parole from the governor.

I believe this bill should be supported as a reasonable accommodation and step forward in reforming criminal justice in Colorado. While this isn’t meant to advocate for more lenient sentencing for violent criminals, I believe this bill can improve how our justice system deals with crime overall by giving it the ability to adapt sentences based on the specifics of a prisoner’s crime as opposed to stubbornly sticking to one-size-fits-all sentencing that often have mandatory minimum time-frames attached.

In the case of the 50 or so juveniles serving life sentences in Colorado, this proposed policy change is a necessary, fair remedy to their circumstances. Since Colorado changed its youth sentencing practices in 2006 to fall in line with constitutional principles, it is only just to pay the same respect to juveniles that were sentenced before this change occurred. Why should a few criminals be forced to serve arcane sentences just because they were jailed before 2006? Every criminal should have the same access to appeal for re-sentencing and parole under modern standards, regardless of what the conditions were at the original time of their sentencing.

Furthermore, this bill stands to save taxpayers money if passed, albeit a small amount. Some people may indeed commit crimes so heinous as youth that they may deserve life imprisonment, but for those whose transgressions are not as outrageous, the chance to apply for commuted sentences or parole also stands as a chance that the state will have to spend less money housing, feeding and monitoring them. This isn’t to say that sentencing of criminals should be based on budgetary availability, but it is a related element that could benefit from the easement of mandatory minimum sentencing practices.

It’s important to mention when discussing this bill that this legislation would not lead to a statewide easement of punishment for crimes committed by youth, nor would it lower the non-time-based standards for prisoners to apply for prison transition programs, parole or other remedies. All this bill stands to do is lessen the amount of time needed to elapse in a criminal’s life sentence to 20 years before they can apply for transition programs. Criminals would still be held to the same standards to be admitted into these programs, and the law’s ability to prosecute crime would not be weakened in any way. 

If you believe the law should be followed to the letter without exception, then this bill could be seen as trying to create shortcuts in the system. However, if you recognize that mandatory minimum sentences and other rigid legal procedures are not, in reality, effective ways of treating people, then this bill stands to improve our circumstances by offering the means for deserving offenders to seek a second chance.

There’s been talk of the need to reform our criminal justice system this election cycle, and this bill offers us the chance to make a direct impact on the issue in our state. This bill offers us a chance to put action behind our words and change justice in our state to be more adaptable to criminals’ circumstances.

Collegian Senior Columnist Sean Kennedy can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @seanskenn.