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.