Young people who break the law should be held accountable for their crimes. But since youngsters who commit violent offenses, even murder, often do so when they are still mentally and emotionally immature, they should have an avenue for appealing their sentences after a reasonable time to the governor.
A new juvenile clemency review board established this week by Gov. Bill Ritter, a longtime district attorney, would provide youthful offenders just such an opportunity to make their case for release or for a reduced sentence.
We think it's a fair and judicious way of handling youth crime, considering youngsters' potential for reform and the medical experts who say teen brains aren't fully developed. The rules of the board are strict enough, requiring a majority vote before a recommendation is sent to the governor, that we don't envision a rash of clemency or commutation decisions.
The 45 youths now locked away for life under a Colorado life-without-parole law that no longer exists might or might not benefit from a board review. But at least now they will have the opportunity to bring their cases forward. At least one of the 45 is serving a mandatory life sentence for merely being in a car during a drive-by shooting, said Pendulum Foundation director Mary Ellen Johnson.
The state legislature changed the law in 2006 to allow child murderers to seek parole after serving 40 years of their sentence. The revised law also gave the governor authority to grant parole prior to the parole eligibility date in the event of "extraordinary mitigating circumstances."
John Riley, former director of the Platte Valley Youth Services Center in Greeley, says studies show that child murderers sent to juvenile facilities and eventually released do not go on to commit violent crimes.
A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling abolishing capital punishment for juvenile offenders cited medical and social science evidence that teens are too immature to be held accountable for their crimes to the same extent as adults.
"From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the opinion for the court.
Studies indicate that minors have a great potential to be rehabilitated. Ritter's new clemency board would also review the cases of youth who have committed lesser crimes but were sentenced as adults to the Youth Offender System (YOS) of the Department of Corrections.
Riley cites the case of a 12-year-old girl who ended up in a juvenile facility because she ran away from home. Now 20, she has worked her way into the adult offender system by committing offenses and is currently in the YOS, having committed numerous offenses while incarcerated that she might never have committed had there been other options.
The new clemency advisory board is sure to raise the ire of people whose loved ones were killed. Their pain should not be negated and victims' families should have a say before any recommendation is made to the governor.
Ultimately, a decision to recommend clemency or a reduced sentence should be made only after comprehensive and thoughtful deliberation and only after a child offender has demonstrated his or her maturity and rehabilitation.
The Denver Post