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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.


Monday, October 26, 2009

A Sentence Too Cruel For Kids

The Denver Post
Rather than serving in the U.S. Senate for almost 20 years, or having so many other wonderful life experiences, I could have served a longer sentence in prison for some of the stupid, reckless things I did as a teenager. I am grateful to have gotten a second chance — and I believe our society should make a sustained investment in offering second chances to our youth.
When I was a teen, we rode aimlessly around town, shot things up, started fires and generally raised hell. It was only dumb luck that we never really hurt anyone. At 17, I was caught destroying federal property and was put on probation. For two years, my probation officer visited me and my friends at home, in the pool hall, at school and on the basketball court. He was a wonderful guy who listened and really cared. I did pretty well on probation. At 21, though, I got into a fight in a tough part of town and ended up in jail for hitting a police officer.
I spent only one night in jail, but that was enough. I remember thinking, "I don't need too much more of this."
I had a chance to turn my life around, and I took it. This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether other young people get that same chance.
On Nov. 9, the court will hold oral argument in Sullivan vs. Florida and Graham vs. Florida, two cases that will determine whether it is constitutional to sentence a teenager to life in prison without parole for a crime that did not involve the taking of a life. There is a simple reason the criminal justice system should treat juveniles and adults differently: Kids are a helluva lot dumber than adults. They do stupid things — as I did — and some even commit serious crimes, but youths don't really ever think through the consequences. It's for this reason that every state restricts children from such consequential actions as voting, serving on juries, purchasing alcohol or marrying without parental consent.
The Supreme Court recognized the differences between teenagers and adults when it held a few years ago, in Roper vs. Simmons, that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on defendants younger than 18. Locking up a youth for the rest of his life, with no hope for parole, is surely unconstitutional for the same reasons. The person you are at 13 or 17 is not the person you are at 30.
Everyone old enough to look back on his or her teenage years knows this.
Peer pressure is a huge part of youth behavior, whether one grows up in Washington, D.C., or Cody, Wyo. The guys will say, "Go get the gun. We'll pick up just enough money for tonight." And almost unthinkingly, you'll do it. There is simply no way to know at the time of sentencing whether a young person will turn out "good" or "bad." The only option is to bring him or her before a parole board — after some number of years — and give the person the chance to declare, "I'm a different person today" — and then prove it.
Parole boards can examine how youth offenders spent their time in prison. Did they read books or work in the library? Did they make furniture? Get a college degree? Those are critical questions for review.
We all know youths who have changed for the better. When I was a lawyer in Cody, the court sometimes appointed me to represent juvenile offenders, and parents who knew of my history often asked for help with their children. I once helped an 18-year-old who stole a car and drove it to Seattle. I later hired him as chief of staff for my Senate office.
I was lucky that the bullets I stole from a hardware store as a teenager and fired from my .22-caliber rifle never struck anyone. I was fortunate that the fires I set never hurt anyone. I heard my wake-up call and listened — and I went on to have many opportunities to serve my country and my community.
When a young person is sent "up the river," we need to remember that all rivers can change course.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can really relate to this article. I have an older brother whom i visited this past year. In our conversations we relived our younger years. My brother stated, had the laws of today been enforced when we were teenagers we would have all been put in jail and possibly prison. I agree after thinking about it, however the things we did growing up rarely hurt anyone physically and when we screwed up and caused monetary damage we generally paid for it. When we faced a judge we were either told to join the army and if we did bring back an honorable discharge and our court problem would be taken away. Still a good policy, why isnt more of it done today?? Common sense.
DA's and Judges today either dont have common sense or are hamstrung with the socalled MANDATORY SENTENCING laws bestowed on them by an act of 1984 that is unconstitutional according to the Supreme Court. djw

Anonymous said...

I believe that if judges and prosecutors would tell young men, to join the service, come out with an honorable discharge and your record will be clean, we would not have the fastest growing population, being the felon one. I have a son in prison, which is there because of problems he got into. I kept asking for help since he was a teenager, but no one listened. Since then and after all the felonies he got into, it was determined that he is bi-polar manic depressant, which is another thing all together. He often said that he would join the service if they would just take his felonies off his record. He says that even now, but I am sure that would not be possible with the meds he is taking. I wonder now if he had been sent to the service when he first started getting into trouble would it have been completely different for him. Once things start going bad, they just roll down hill and it was very difficult to stop them, in fact, it was impossible to stop them. We will never know, but there are a big number of young men who might benefit from the changing of the mandatory sentencing laws.

Barney said...

Who is the author of this article? If it was included anywhere, I missed it.

Pamela Clifton and Christie Donner said...

By Alan K. Simpson
Special to The Washington Post

Barney said...

Thank You!

cltlblog said...

This is such a fantastic article.

People make mistakes, people grow, and people change. Sometimes people need help to do make the changes they need to make - especially young people. I hope this article is a reminder to those who judge people who have wandered down "the wrong path" - a reminder that all humans make mistakes. I don't mean to downplay the existence of horrible crimes that can never be undone. But so many people spend time in jail when, with a little help, they could get back on a more positive path. People deserve the chance.

cltlblog said...

This is such a fantastic article.

People make mistakes, people grow, and people change. Sometimes people need help to do make the changes they need to make - especially young people. I hope this article is a reminder to those who judge people who have wandered down "the wrong path" - a reminder that all humans make mistakes. I don't mean to downplay the existence of horrible crimes that can never be undone. But so many people spend time in jail when, with a little help, they could get back on a more positive path. People deserve the chance.

cltlblog said...

This is such a fantastic article.

People make mistakes, people grow, and people change. Sometimes people need help to do make the changes they need to make - especially young people. I hope this article is a reminder to those who judge people who have wandered down "the wrong path" - a reminder that all humans make mistakes. I don't mean to downplay the existence of horrible crimes that can never be undone. But so many people spend time in jail when, with a little help, they could get back on a more positive path. People deserve the chance.

cltlblog said...

This is such a fantastic article.

People make mistakes, people grow, and people change. Sometimes people need help to do make the changes they need to make - especially young people. I hope this article is a reminder to those who judge people who have wandered down "the wrong path" - a reminder that all humans make mistakes. I don't mean to downplay the existence of horrible crimes that can never be undone. But so many people spend time in jail when, with a little help, they could get back on a more positive path. People deserve the chance.

cltlblog said...

I didn't mean for my comment to post so many times... I apologize

Anonymous said...

If all of us were prosecuted for our mistakes, errors in judgment, or traffic infractions, we'd all be in prison.

Our legal system has gone crazy. People spend years behind bars for things they didn't do because once they are arrested, the prosecutor piles on charge after charge until the accused has no choice but to take a plea bargain or face life in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Our prosecutors tout their conviction record -- the heck with justice. There is no justice to be found in our legal system. Our legal system is akin to N. Korea or the old USSR. We are out of control!

And, mandatory parole is another unjust part of our legal system. After an inmate serves his full sentence, he is subject to years of mandatory parole. The parolee is often placed on Intensive Supervised Parole (ISP) for a period of at least six months and wears an ankle bracelet/monitor and is subjected to the whims of the Parole Officer and often allowed out of his home for a few hours per day with restrictions that almost promote or encourage failure.

The parolee is subjected to mandatory UAs, is not allowed to drink alcohol, must meet with the Parole Officer or ComCor representative four or more times per month. The parolee incurs monetary charges for every visit. The parolee is told where he can or cannot live. This is all AFTER HE HAS COMPLETED HIS FULL SENTENCE BEHIND BARS! I thought our Constitution prohibited cruel and unusual punishment!

Anonymous said...

Oh, and he is not allowed to drive when he is released so he must rely on family members or public transportation (which is not at all convenient or reliable). Many family members of parolees do not have the means to be available at the times the parolee is required to report to the Parole Officer or ComCor so the parolee is subject to having his parole revoked because he can't get to his appointments.

We need to end mandatory parole. Mandatory parole is just an employment program for Colorado. It keeps our state budget high because we have to pay the Parole Officers. Keep in mind, the parolee on mandatory parole has ALREADY COMPLETED HIS SENTENCE BEHIND BARS!