When I decided to start this blog, I told myself that the best thing I could do to participate in the dialogue about juvenile cases and juvenile sentencing would be to learn about the law, about the impending changes and about the cases, but I wanted to keep a distance from those who’d been convicted of the crimes. I thought that getting to know the human beings behind the newspaper articles and the case files and the sentences would be too difficult on an emotional level.
I’ve found that separating this issue from the people is not as easy as I thought it would be. The Frontline special, “When Kids Get Life” put five real faces and voices on Jacob Ind, Nathan Ybanez, Erik Jensen, Trevor Jones and Andy Medina. I read Mary Ellen Johnson’s book, “The Murder of Jacob” to learn more about his story. I’ve written and received two letters from Jacob, each exchange bringing me to a deeper understanding of who he is today and what his life is like. The Rolling Stone article about Nate Ybanez provided a far more detailed history of his story. I learned about Cheryl Armstrong on The Pendulum Foundation site and subsequently spoke with her mother.
Today I received a letter from Cheryl Armstrong and she has become very real to me. I will talk more about this in a future post.
When I began writing this blog, I had assumptions about how the judicial system worked, but I never understood how gray so much of what happens is. The cases that caught my attention are all high profile, highly publicized cases because of the age of the offenders and because of the nature of the crimes.
I’ve learned that the justice system and the laws that govern it can be profoundly impacted by politics, perceived public opionion and of course by the media.
I’ve learned that most of those who’ve been locked away as children have been largely forgotten. The lucky ones have one or two people who stand behind them and support them. The unlucky ones have been forgotten by even their families.
This brings me to the Colorado Governor’s Juvenile Clemency Board. It was widely publicized when in August of 2007, Governor Ritter established the Juvenile Clemency Board. It’s difficult for someone like me, without a background in politics or the law to piece together how these things work, but I’ve learned that each state governor establishes his or her own approach to clemency. Each new governor creates his or her own criteria, and each offender who is eligible may apply for clemency, which can result in a number of possible outcomes.
If a prisoner is granted clemency, it may result in a pardon and immediate release. This is very rare. What is more likely is that a prisoner may be granted commutation of a long sentence, which may or may not result in release or conditional release.
This sounds good, but someone serving a life sentence may have his sentence commuted to forty years before possibility of parole. Forty years is better than life, but not much.
What are the chances that a clemency application might be approved? Nobody knows. Each board is newly formed and reinventing the wheel, so to speak. There are no precedents. There are lots of concerns about applying for clemency, especially about going first. Nobody wants to be a test case. Governor Ritter is a former Denver District Attorney. Is a prisoner who was convicted while Governor Ritter was the prosecutor less likely to be granted clemency than a prisoner who was tried by another DA? Jeanne Smith, a member of the clemency board is a former District Attorney for El Paso County. If she reviews a clemency application that she also happened to prosecute, would that have an impact on how that offender’s application for clemency is handled?
Offenders and their family members have to weigh many questions that have no clear answers. Is it better to wait to apply for clemency under a new governor if you were convicted by the current governor?
Is the risk of having a sentence commuted to a lower, but still excessive number of years too great to risk applying for clemency?
Most of the offenders are indigent and cannot afford to retain attorneys so these are decisions they’re left to work through on their own.
I was foolish enough to think I could become involved in this issue without allowing myself to care about these people who now are trying to determine how to approach an application for clemency. The sad thing is that I’m not qualified to help them. I don’t even know who can.
Victims and victims’ families have the opportunity to present information urging that the governor deny clemency during this process. Supporters of the offenders also have the opportunity to speak on their behalf.
I’ve scoured the internet and there is no paper or article that I can find that talks about the pros and cons and issues that an offender should consider prior to applying for clemency.
If you’ve got any thoughts or ideas about things the candidates for clemency should consider, please comment or email me.