Committee shelves bill to allow juvenile parole

A bill that would have retroactively allowed those sentenced as juveniles to life in prison to be eligible for parole after 40 years was killed on concerns of constitutionality and victim’s rights. The bill failed to move out of committee on a 6-5 vote with Democrat Crisanta Duran, Denver, crossing party lines to vote against it.

HB 1287, would have retroactively applied sentencing laws passed in 2006 to those convicted prior to its implementation. It would have allowed individuals convicted as juveniles between 1991 and 2006, when life sentences for some crimes were required for juveniles, to seek parole after serving 40 years.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said, “I think it is irresponsible to pass this bill. I think that the state, in its current condition, to have to litigate the constitutionality of a clearly unconstitutional statute is irresponsible.”

Rep. Claire Levy
While the District Attorney’s Office testified the bill did appear to have a number of constitutional issues revolving around separation of powers, co-sponsor of the bill Rep. Claire Lev, D-Boulder, said that she and Republican co-sponsor B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, had spoken with Attorney General John Suthers and he had said that it was defensible.

While Morrissey and others testifying against the bill seemed to center their argument on the constitutionality, at the heart of the debate was victims rights, juvenile culpability and whether individuals should receive an adult sentence for a juvenile crime.

Morrissey said at least 16 of the 50+ individuals who would benefit from the legislation were the worst of the worst. He said some of them simply should not be released.

“My problem, with part two of this bill is that it gives the most violent juvenile offenders in this state a free pass for multiple murders,” Morrissey said.

Edward Richardson, a circuit court judge in Florida who is currently teaching in Colorado, testified before the committee that the bill was about equity. He said that those who had been convicted under an old law should be allowed to benefit from decisions based on new science and evolving cultural opinions.

Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, however, disagreed and said Colorado laws are full of such inequities and asked if every law passed should be retroactively applied.

While individuals testified that juvenile brains are less developed than adult brains and so juveniles should be given more leniency, representatives of prosecutors testified that that data is not yet set in stone. They cited a number of researchers that said linking brain development data with criminal culpability was a topic still in question.

Still, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2005 decision that the death penalty for juveniles is unconstitutional based in part on brain maturation data.

The American Bar Association also released a report in 2004 reviewing the data surrounding adolescent culpability in crimes. It concluded that because the brain continues to develop in humans until their early 20s “adolescents are less morally culpable than adults and are more capable of change and rehabilitation.”

Dr. David Fassler, a psychiatry professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, told USA Todayin 2007 that brain development is not about rational decisions, it is about what a juvenile does when under pressure.

“It doesn’t mean adolescents can’t make a rational decision or appreciate the difference between right and wrong,” he said. “It does mean, particularly when confronted with stressful or emotional decisions, they are more likely to act impulsively, on instinct, without fully understanding or analyzing the consequences of their actions.”

Morrissey, when asked about his thoughts on the neurological evidence of juvenile brain maturation, said studies in other countries had not shown similar results and that if someone had a true brain disorder they could plead not-guilty on reason of insanity.

In the end, the testimony of victims’ families helped to sway Republican members from voting with Nikkel in favor of the bill. And with Duran’s vote the committee effectively closed the door on the bill for now.

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