Colorado Juvenile Felony Murder Bill Meets Resistance

Making strides toward more compassionate juvenile sentencing in Colorado will be a long road. Senate Bill 08-066, authored by Colorado State Senator Suzanne Williams and sponsored by Representative Rosemary Marshall is intended to address the felony murder statute in juvenile cases.

The bill summary is as follows and can be read in its entirety here:

Reduces first degree murder to a class 2 felony if the defendant

was under 18 years of age at the time of the offense, was convicted as an

adult, and did not commit or assist in committing the homicidal act.

Makes a defendant convicted of class 2 felony first degree murder eligible

for sentencing to the youthful offender system.

According to the Colorado Senate News, the vote on this bill has been delayed, pending revisions to the bill. Apparently discussion on this got quite heated. My interpretation of this article leads me to believe that staunch opposition to reducing any punitive power with regard to juveniles has led to an unproductive unwillingness to rationally discuss the specifics of the bill. The examples of felony murders that the Denver District Attorney cited are extreme and from the little I currently know about juvenile felony murder convictions are not representative of most cases:

“Morrissey recounted a litany of cases in which heinous crimes were committed, and felony-murder charges were used to bring justice. In one such case, he said, a woman who had been kidnapped and severely injured was left outside and died of exposure. Technically, Morrissey said, no one committed the final act killing the woman, yet a jury found that, clearly, all the kidnappers’ actions led to her death.”

This bill is incredibly significant. According to the Free Online Law Dictionary, felony murder is:

“a rule of criminal statutes that any death which occurs during the commission of a felony is first degree murder, and all participants in that felony or attempted felony can be charged with and found guilty of murder. A typical example is a robbery involving more than one criminal, in which one of them shoots, beats to death or runs over a store clerk, killing the clerk. Even if the death were accidental, all of the participants can be found guilty of felony murder, including those who did no harm, had no gun, and/or did not intend to hurt anyone. In a bizarre situation, if one of the hold-up men or women is killed, his fellow robbers can be charged with murder.”

Until the law was changed in 2006, a felony murder conviction warranted a mandatory sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). Today, a felony murder conviction in Colorado has a mandatory minimum sentence of forty years before the possibility of parole.

I tried to run down some statistics on how many of the approximately 45 juveniles currently serving LWOP (the change in the 2006 law was not made retroactive and therefore their life sentences still stand) had been convicted under the felony murder statute, but data is difficult to come by. I will keep working on it. I have heard that up to 60% of juveniles convicted of murder have been convicted under this statute, but I have no source for that figure.

Erik Jensen is one of the juveniles convicted of felony murder, who is currently serving LWOP. You can see full details of his story at the Frontline free online documentary “When Kids Get Life”. Trevor Jones is another. Please take a look at this cases and ask yourself if these two teenagers should die in adult prison. This bill can’t help them, but it might help kids like them.

Erik, Trevor and an unknown number of other juveniles exercised bad judgment and were somehow present, but did not participate in a crime in which the death of an innocent person resulted. Some of them are serving LWOP. Those who are convicted today will serve a minimum of forty years in prison.

Why do the District Attorneys feel that allowing some juveniles convicted of felony murder – which means they did not actually commit or participate in the commission of a murder – to be sentenced through the youthful offender system, rather than in the adult prison system “is a bad bill that gives teens the message they can be a party to murder or other heinous crimes without facing the most serious consequences”?

Really? Will it send that message? Or will it allow children who have made bad decisions and found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time an opportunity at rehabilitation and redemption?

Under the current statute, a judge’s hands are tied. The District Attorneys in Colorado already have complete discretion to direct file children as young as the age of fourteen into the adult court system. If these same children are convicted of felony murder, they are automatically sentenced to a minimum of forty years in adult prison, where they are five times more likely than their adult counterparts to commit suicide or be victimized by sexual predators.

The offenders are still punished. The bill proposes to sentence a juvenile convicted of felony murder, under specific criteria to a minimum of two years and a maximum of seven years in the youthful offender system with additional community service. That’s not a slap on the hand.

I urge you to contact Governor Ritter to voice your support for this bill. This hyperlink takes you to an automated form, where you can easily express your support for Senate Bill 08-066.

Let’s not continue to throw our children away.




10 responses to “Colorado Juvenile Felony Murder Bill Meets Resistance

  1. Since 2002, The Pendulum Foundation has introduced bills to change life without parole for Colorado juveniles. The arguments against lowering sentences often made no sense. The “kids will think they can get away with murder” argument was one of the worst. No kid ever thinks about the consequences of his or her acts. So, the idea that a kid will say, “They’ve lowered the felony murder laws so I’ll go out and rob and kill somebody” is silly beyond imagining. Or that a teen, such as Jacob Ind or Nathan Ybanez, who is trying to flee an abusive parent will not act out because they know they face a mandatory life sentence. I was always surprised when intelligent people would make such statements, and when those listening believed them. Kids are not known for their reasoned thinking — particularly kids who come from very dysfunctional backgrounds, as many of these kids do. And yet, in the middle of an irrational act they are going to think rationally? No human being actually thinks or behaves in the way of these mythical teens that were trotted out during legislative hearings. And yet we heard this talking point every time.
    We also heard that tough laws “send a message.” But to whom? Certainly not the fourteen-year-olds who will be convicted under them.
    Regarding the current felony murder bill, when Senator Williams wondered aloud whether the Denver DA had actually read the bill’s contents, her question brought back painful memories. Portions of our bills were sometimes interpreted in ways that left us scratching our heads in bemusement.
    “How could anybody possibly glean that meaning from these actual words?”
    When victims were asked to testify against one of our bills to lower LWOP, some were told that if the bill passed, these “killer kids” could be back out on the streets tomorrow. The reality was that most wouldn’t be eligible for at least a decade — and some never.
    But that’s politics.
    I hope that someday soon these difficult issues and related legislation will actually be argued on their merits. Is public safety enhanced by keeping some of these kids behind bars for the rest of their lives at the cost of millions of dollars when rehabilitation would be so much cheaper? Why are we so willing to throw money mindlessly at ineffectual tough- on- crime policies? While funding for our colleges and universities needs to be increased by hundreds of millions of dollars in order to bring Colorado up to “average” among all 50 states, why do we continue to throw money at prisons rather than programs? When our opposition says, “Take a life we take your life,” they are actually taking not only the life of that child who is sentenced to die in prison, but draining the fiscal life of this state in the process.
    I applaud Senator Williams and all our legislators who are trying to return a measure of compassion and fairness to what so many of us have come to believe is a badly flawed system.

  2. Mary Ellen,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. So often, the opposition to anything but the harshest adult sentences for juveniles involved in serious crime appears to be motivated by the desire to spread fear and to imply that anything less than throwing a kid in prison until he’s sixty years old will result in no punishment at all. I applaud Senator Williams and hope that she continues to champion this bill.

  3. Lisa,
    This is a great blog and I applaud you for putting all your time and energy on it. I think there is a lack of balance in out justice system and it has to be addressed at all levels, not just juveniles. But I do agree that over zealous prosecution of juveniles is not the answer. In many cases, I hear these stories and it is not the juvenile I want to imprison, but their parents that failed them. Would the same juvenile have committed the same crimes if he had had different parents? I think til the age of 18, kids just don’t know how badly they can mess up their lives and most of them deserve second chances. Not all, some are irredeemable. But for the rest, like those you have highlighted here in your blog, I think society owes them a second chance.

  4. Ello,

    Thanks so much for commenting. I believe the phrase “arbitrary and capricious” is very appropriate, based on what I’m learning — I think you are absolutely right about the parents. I think it’s interesting to note that in the cases of the two juveniles who committed parricide (Jacob Ind and Nathan Ybanez), had someone investigated the parents and discovered the abuse, prior to the killings occurring, the boys would have been deemed the victims. Unfortunately, no one helped either of them, despite the signs of abuse and now the parents are dead and the victims are in prison.

  5. Please note that Colorado Senate News is an electronic publication of the state Senate Republican Caucus. It might not be the best source for finding news about the goings on at Colorado’s capitol.

  6. Actually, I didn’t realize that. From what I understand about these particular proceedings the story was pretty accurate. I will look for alternative sources for this kind of news. Thank you for stopping in.

  7. Sandra Johnson

    “Erik, Trevor and an unknown number of other juveniles exercised bad judgment and were somehow present, but did not participate in a crime in which the death of an innocent person resulted. ”

    The above statement is not true. Trevor Jones was holding the gun that killed a victim during the course of a robbery.

    I respect the passion behind opening the dialog on this issue, but it should be based on fact and credible information. It is statements like this that are misleading and will keep people from getting behind this very important issue. I feel each case should be heard on it’s own merits, but that won’t happen until both sides stick to arguing the actual facts.

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