DENVER-Despite the opposition from district attorney’s officials and victims’ families, juveniles convicted as adults may no longer have to serve their life sentences.
On March 16, the House Judiciary Committee heard from Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-El Paso County, about her bill, which would give juveniles sentenced to life in prison a chance to go before a parole board to be evaluated and possibly freed after serving 40 years.
“What we want with this is simply, a second chance opportunity,” Hefley said to the committee.
Under current Colorado law, juveniles can be charged as adults at 14 for class I felonies, like murder. If these juveniles are tried as adults and convicted, they are automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole. This sentence is the same for adults, but the death penalty is also an option.
House Bill 1315 passed through the committee by a vote of 7-4. It must still go through votes in the House and the Senate of the state legislature and is currently in the House Appropriations Committee.
Although the bill passed comfortably in committee, district attorney’s officials, police officers and families of victims showed up and gave testimony against the bill for more than two hours, many in tears.
Many victims expressed concern that those who are serving time now would be released in the coming years. Currently 45 people are serving life sentences after being convicted as adults.
Family and friends of Matthew Foley, who was 16 when he was shot and killed by Trevor Jones, 17, in 1996, came to protest the bill.
“It’s never ending, we want to bury it,” Wayne Palone, Foley’s stepfather said of having to continue to talk about Foley’s death. “We were served justice, but now we feel just the opposite.”
But supporters of the bill maintain the parole board still has the opportunity to deny the offender parole after 40 years.
“The severity of the crime does need to be taken into account,” said Jerry Wheeler, legislative aide to Hefley. But he, like other supporters said that juveniles need to be disciplined differently. “There is a reason why we have adult law and juvenile law. Juveniles are not just mini-adults, and we need to recognize that.”
Others, like Jerry Yager, a psychiatrist and executive director of the Denver Children’s Home, agreed that the mind of a juvenile is not fully developed.
Regardless of this research, many district attorney’s officials oppose the bill because they say it is unconstitutional. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said he was concerned about the bill because it would take pressure of the governor to commute sentences and he worried this bill would erode the finality of these sentences.
The day after the bill passed through its committee, Gov. Bill Owens told reporters he would not support a bill that would change past sentences.
But Hefley and supporters contend this bill, which she has been working to pass for more than five years, is a step in the right direction and she hopes to continue to work at improving the state’s Department of Corrections as a whole.
“All I want to do is make sure that we give a second chance look,” Hefley said.
Sara Crocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org