Colorado has officially eliminated the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Gov. John Hickenlooper signed two bills into law on Friday that will guarantee parole opportunities for the 48 people serving the sentence. Colorado banned the sentences prospectively in 2006, but did not devise provisions for the four dozen individuals who were already serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as children.
Overall, hundreds of people who were sentenced to life without parole as children will have opportunities for review consideration as a result of legislative, litigation and policy changes enacted since the beginning of 2016.
“We are thrilled that Colorado, an early leader in prohibiting life-without-parole sentences for children, has finally prohibited these cruel sentences for all children no matter when their offenses occurred,” said Nikola Nable-Juris, policy counsel for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, the national organization working exclusively to replace extreme sentences for children with age-appropriate, trauma-informed accountability measures. “While children in Colorado still face lengthy sentences that are not yet age-appropriate, we are heartened that no child will die in prison without the opportunity for review and are optimistic that SB 180 and SB 181 will be catalysts for future reform efforts.”
Under Senate Bill 181, people previously serving these sentences will be entitled to resentencing hearings and subject to new sentencing ranges of 30 to 50 years or life in prison with the possibility after 40 years for felony murder cases. The other individuals serving JLWOP will receive life with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
The Colorado Legislature also passed Senate Bill 180, which allows certain individuals who received adult sentences for crimes committed as children to apply for a specialized prison program that provides work training and reentry skills. Incarcerated individuals who have not been released on parole may apply to the program after they have served 20 years. Participants who have evidenced positive change, growth and rehabilitation may then apply to the governor for early parole.
The reforms in Colorado come just weeks after the Iowa Supreme Court banned life without parole for children. Both South Dakota and Utah banned the sentences earlier this year. Just last week, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he will not seek life-without-parole sentences in past and future cases involving children. More than 300 Philadelphia children have been sentenced to life without parole, more than any place else in the world. Among them is Joe Ligon, 78, who has served more time than anyone in Pennsylvania and potentially the nation. The New York Times has called on other districts attorney to follow Mr. Williams’ lead.
In addition, two recent Florida Supreme Court cases have further highlighted the growing impact of Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana in providing relief for youth sentenced to life in prison. The rulings found that everyone sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence as a child is entitled to review consideration, regardless of when they were sentenced. In Atwell v. Florida, the Florida Supreme Court held that a life with parole sentence that fails to provide a meaningful opportunity for relief through the parole process violates Miller and Montgomery. This decision means that at least 300 individuals sentenced to life with parole in Florida are eligible for resentencing.
And in Landrum v. Florida, the Florida Supreme Court held that Miller and Montgomery apply to discretionary life without parole sentences. The Florida Supreme Court recognized that the principles on which Miller and Montgomery were decided necessarily apply to discretionary life without parole sentences. With this decision, Florida joins other states such South Carolina and Georgia that have afforded resentencing opportunities to individuals sentenced as children to discretionary life without parole.
The result of all of this is that fewer children will die in prison.
“There is no question that the tide is turning against these death-in-prison sentences,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Certainly, there is more work to be done. Many of these important reforms still fall short of holding children accountable in age-appropriate and trauma-informed ways, and too many states are still willing to impose extreme sentences upon children. But these types of penalties are losing favor as more policymakers and opinion leaders call for reform. When the lead prosecutor in the city that has used the sentence more aggressively than anyone else abandons the practice, the writing is on the wall.”