Peter Marcus, DDN Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
A local group dedicated to juvenile sentencing reform is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will decide it is unconstitutional to give juveniles who commit crimes other than murder a sentence of life in prison.
The Pendulum Foundation has been committed for years to fighting for Colorado kids sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the top of their list are two “exceptionally young lifers.”
Samuel Mandez and Lorenzo Montoya are both serving life for crimes they were charged with at the age of 14.
Cruel and unusual?
“Visit any prison in Colorado where these young prisoners are housed and you don’t need to wait for a Supreme Court ruling,” said Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the Pendulum Foundation. “Sentencing children to die behind bars is absolutely cruel and unusual punishment.”
It is that question that sits before the Supreme Court. The nation’s high court agreed to hear two Florida cases, one involving a 13-year-old convicted of raping an elderly woman and the other involving a 17-year-old who took part in an armed home-invasion robbery while on probation for an earlier violent crime.
Their lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole, for juveniles whose crimes did not involve murder violated the constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court in 2005 abolished the death penalty for juveniles.
The justices will consider in the two cases whether to extend that ruling to sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder.
Decision expected in October
The justices are expected to hear and then decide the two cases during their upcoming term that begins in October.
Johnson points out that 17 percent of Colorado’s juvenile inmate population serving life in prison were charged with their crimes at the young age of 15. There are nearly 50 kids in Colorado prisons serving life without parole.
Juveniles sentenced to life without parole are immediately thrown into adult prisons in Colorado. Young prisoners are usually treated the worst, preyed upon by rapists, murderers and other violent offenders, said Johnson. For those sent to solitary confinement — considered for young prisoners to be a safe alternative to general population — the risk is insanity.
“Isolation has been shown to drive people crazy after weeks. And yet we as a state are so proud of our control units, we’re building another 800 beds and burying our young prisoners inside for — not weeks — but years on end,” said Johnson.
State legislation this year signed into law by the governor expanded the eligibility for sentencing to the youthful offender system to 18- and 19-year-olds. The Pendulum Foundation said the law is a step in the right direction, but said much work still needs to be done.
The youthful offender system is a rehabilitation program used instead of prison for certain crimes committed before a person’s 21st birthday.
In 2006, Colorado lawmakers lowered life without parole sentences for juveniles to 40 years before the possibility of parole. But the law is not retroactive and Johnson says it also does not go far enough.
“Forty years is a lifetime anyway,” she said. “It makes us look as if we care without actually having to do anything.”
The juvenile justice advocate makes the same argument for the seven-member Colorado Juvenile Clemency Advisory Board, enacted by Gov. Bill Ritter in August 2007.
“The board hasn’t commuted anyone’s sentence,” said Johnson,
She added that life in prison without the possibility of parole is a hopeless sentence that does nothing in the way of reform.
“It’s no wonder the rest of the world is shocked by our treatment of these children,” said Johnson.