Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Teens Crime - A Lifetime To Pay

You've likely never met Erik Jensen. And if the state of Colorado has its way, you'll never get the chance.

Erik, sent to prison at 17, is serving a life sentence for murder. But like most things in life, his story is much more complicated than his conviction might initially indicate.

On a June night in 1998, Erik walked in on a teen friend, Nathan Ybanez, who after years of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of his parents, was in the process of killing his mother. Prosecutors never alleged that Erik launched the fatal blow. Instead, they maintained that he conspired with Nathan to kill her and then helped him carry out the crime. They charged him with murder based on a complicity theory.

As their proof, prosecutors offered the testimony of a third teen involved in the crime, Brett Baker. Under intense pressure from prosecutors, Brett testified in exchange for having several charges against him dropped. Even though Brett failed a lie detector test — which prosecutors required as part of the deal — they still put him on the stand. But jurors never heard about that.

Instead, they heard from Brett that Erik had confided in him that he had hit Nathan's mother over the head with a fireplace tool, a version of events adamantly denied by both Erik and Nathan. They both agree that Nathan acted alone in causing his mother's death. Prior to the killing, Erik and Brett's parents contacted authorities and social service agencies in an effort to remove Nathan from his abusive home environment. Their requests fell on deaf ears.

Erik admits that he, together with Brett, helped Nathan clean up the crime scene. Before plea negotiations between Erik's trial attorney and prosecutors broke down in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, his parents say he was willing to plead guilty to being an accessory after the crime. He would have served between two and eight years.

Instead, the case went to trial. Based in large part on Brett's testimony, jurors convicted Erik. Under Colorado law, the court was required to sentence him to life in prison without parole.

Nearly a decade later, Erik is making the most of life behind bars. He has self-published one book, a science-fiction fantasy, and is working on more. He is a daily subscriber to Investor's Business Daily, and with the help of his devoted parents, Curt and Pat Jensen, he runs a website geared toward helping youths (teensintrouble.org).

Erik is one of 48 Colorado inmates serving life in prison after being convicted of a crime committed while still a juvenile. Nathan is another. The oldest of these inmates is now in his mid-30s. Together, they are just a small portion of the more than 1,000 people serving time as an adult in Colorado prisons for crimes committed before the age of 18.

In 2006, in response to efforts by the Jensens and others concerned about the growing insistence by district attorneys to try juveniles as adults, the Colorado legislature voted to prohibit life sentences for future juvenile offenders. Today, kids tried as adults can be sentenced to a maximum of 40 years. But Erik and the others sentenced to life before the change was made are out of luck. The new law is not retroactive.

Many of these teens were sent to prison under the state's felony murder rule, which makes any participant in a felony criminally responsible for any deaths that occur during the commission of the underlying crime — regardless of whether the participant caused them.

Originally designed to deter dangerous felonies that could result in death, the rule is problematic because it allows those who never commit murder to be sentenced as killers. In Colorado, 60 percent of the juveniles sentenced to life without parole since 1998 are there because of a felony murder conviction.

In 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter established a juvenile clemency advisory board. It was promoted as a venue for commuting the sentences of those deserving parole. But critics say Ritter — a former district attorney himself — has appointed board members that have direct case-specific conflicts of interests. The board's chairman, Jeanne Smith, served as a prosecutor in El Paso County on multiple cases that sentenced juveniles to life or led to felony murder convictions. [Ritter was given several chances to be interview for this column, but declined to do so.]

The board's critics, disappointed by its inaction thus far, are preparing for a 2008 legislative session that will see the felony murder rule and Colorado's life sentence mandates for juveniles as an important part of the legislative debate. Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, and Claire Levy, D-Boulder, have indicated they will both introduce reform legislation.

According to Mary Ellen Johnson, director of the Pendulum Foundation, a reform coalition that includes parents of victims of violent crime will also work to enforce a 2006 legislative mandate, championed by former state Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, that requires those like Erik to receive mental health services while behind bars. Johnson believes that if clemency is to ever work, juveniles must receive treatment that will adequately help them reintegrate back into society.

The Jensens and others have also begun designing a statewide ballot initiative that would encourage the rehabilitation of youth offenders. Credible polling indicates that voters of all political persuasions across the state strongly support reforms that would provide kids legitimate opportunities for a second chance at life.

Our legal system should show forgiveness to those like Erik, who, in the wrong place at the wrong time as a conflicted teen, made a horrific decision. He has paid his debt to society and after serving nearly a decade in prison, he should be allowed to come home and pick up the pieces of his life. Ritter's clemency board would serve justice by taking up his case.

In a nation like ours, we believe in giving kids second chances. Our laws, however, don't reflect this commitment. Today, the U.S. is the only Western nation that allows for children to be sentenced to life without parole.

In total, there are more than 2,300 Erik Jensens across our nation, kids who without significant changes to our laws will never see the outside of a prison again.

Opportunity knocks for Colorado's legislators. The question remains: Will they listen?


The Denver Post

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I HOPE THAT ONE DAY ERIK AND HIS FRIEND WILL GO HOME TO LIVE A LIVE IN FREEDOM.
THEY DO NOT BELONG IN PRISON.

PLEASE DO NOT FORGET THEM.
PLEASE DO SOMETING.
PLEASE HELP THEM.
PLEASE RELEASE THEM.

ANN

Anonymous said...

I cannot understand why they were sentenced for live without parole.

Help them.
Legislators stand up and do something about it.
James

Anonymous said...

I have got 2 sons, they are 15 and 17 years now. It makes me angry and sad if I think that boys of this age are in a prison for the rest of their lives.
Let America come to reason, because this is not a solution.
Let them go back to a normal live with a job, family, friends.
America, open those doors and let them live in freedom amd peace.

We will not forget them.
Margaret.

Anonymous said...

I HOPE THAT THE FAMILY OF THE VICTEMS WILL FORGIVE THEM FOR WHAT THEY DID WHEN THEY WERE CHILDREN. DO NOT HATE THEM FOR WHAT THEY DID.

NO MORE SUFFERING !!!
ANDREW

Anonymous said...

Vol gevoelens van afschuw en ongeloof heb ik het programma van de jong veroordeelden op de Nederlandse televisie gevolgd. Ik heb me meermaals afgevraagd wat het voor zin heeft deze mensen voor de rest van hun leven op te sluiten.
Natuurlijk gaan mijn gedachten uit naar de slachtoffers en hun familie maar ook een levenslange opsluiting maakt wat deze mensen in hun jeugd gedaan hebben niet ongedaan. Haat lost niets op en brengt alleen meer verbittering.
Hoe moeilijk het ook is, toch wil ik vragen aan de familie van de slachtoffers om hun woede en verdriet even opzij te zetten. Veel moed is nodig om te kunnen vergeven ,om deze jonge mannen een tweede kans te gunnen.
Ik hoop van harte dat dit op een dag werkelijkheid mag worden en dat slachtoffers en daders elkaar een hand van verzoening kunnen geven.
rob.

Anonymous said...

It's real easy to say forgive and let your heart mend. Try being a father of an 18 year old son who was murdered last month by a 23 year old, paid by a 40 year old woman, and driven by her 16 year old son. Oh, did I mention that they robbed my son too...... the 16 year old there every step of the way.... and also the one who knew there would be an open window..... Yeah.... I've got compassion..... let them all rot in jail. The electric chair would end any of their pain and suffering. Let them all think about what they did for the rest of their meaningless lives like our family has no choice but to do. Let's start making people accountable. There's too much touchy feely today. Too many slaps on the wrist. Hell, we don't even do that. It might hurt their feelings. GROUP HUG everyone!

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to hear of your tragedy, and you have every right to have no sympathy...but what about empathy.
Kids screw up all the time and on all scales.
That could be any of our sons in there...

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Anonymous said...

Eric and Nathan were just boys when they were send to prison. They live a life without any future. Anoter 10 years, another 20years, 50 years ????
Will that be the answer ???
I DO NOT THINK SO !!!!