48 Colorado Juveniles Serving Life Sentences Could Get Parole

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Erik Jensen
Erik Jensen, in his 30's now, was sentenced to life without parole when he was 17 for his part in a murder.

A handful of inmates -- who thought they'd die in prison -- may have a chance at release. There are 48 prisoners in Colorado serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

This week, the state legislature approved a bill that makes them eligible for parole after they serve at least 30 years. It's now at Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk, who hasn't yet said if he'll sign the legislation.

Here are some questions and answers about this group of 48 inmates:

These nearly 50 inmates are adults now but they were sentenced when they 17 years old and younger. What makes this group unique?

All of these prisoners were convicted of murder during a narrow window of time when it was legal to sentence juveniles to life without parole. That was from 1990 to 2006 at a time when Colorado and the nation were "getting tough on crime."

In 2006, state legislators changed the law so juveniles couldn't be sentenced to life without parole, but they didn't grandfather in these inmates. Then in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment. So far, though, these inmates in Colorado remain behind bars and Colorado has struggled with what to do about them.

People on both sides of this issue have been arguing about it for more than a decade, but this is the first time advocates succeeded in making it possible that these inmates could be released. What does this legislation do?

It attempts to comply with several recent Supreme Court decisions that these sentences are unconstitutional. The rulings have pointed to a body of new research that has found children think differently from adults and don't understand consequences the same way. The pivotal decision came in 2012 with Miller vs. Alabama. At the time, many of the 48 in Colorado thought the gates of prison would just fly open and they'd be free. But that didn't happen.

This bill allows this group to apply for parole after 40 years -- but with earned time for good behavior, they could apply after 30 years. Of course, once you apply for parole, it may take years to be granted parole.

There's a companion bill as well. What does that do?

This applies to some inmates who were convicted as juveniles, are serving long sentences and have already served for many years. That includes the 48. Depending on their crime, they could apply for a special program after serving 20 or 25 years. And that could lead to early parole.

Advocates for these inmates have tried for years to get a bill through the legislature and the issue stirs up a lot of emotion. Why?

There are just so many ways people can view justice. On the one hand, you have a murder, in some cases multiple murders and of course you have the victims' families.

Then you have juveniles sent to adult prisons -- perhaps as young as 15 -- and their parents and supporters who say sentencing a kid to die in prison isn't right.

For about a decade, I've been interviewing people on both sides. I've gone to prisons to talk to some of the 48 inmates. A couple of years ago, I traveled to the Limon Correctional Facility to speak with Erik Jensen, who's in his 30's. He was convicted as a teenager for his role in the murder of his friend's mother. His crime was felony murder since he wasn't the actual murderer, but he was there and helped dispose of the victim's body. Jensen told me he and the other 47 inmates should have been punished differently from adults.

"That's not to say that we don't deserve to get punished for what we've done. Like in no way shape or form do I think we should have gotten a slap on the wrist, but we were children and knowing what I know now, that would never be an action that I thought was acceptable," Jensen said in 2014.

On the other side, there are victims' families who fought hard against this bill. Gail Palone testified against the legislation in April. She's from the Eastern Plains town of Bennett. Her son Matt was 16 when he was shot to death by a 17 year old named Trevor Jones. This was in 1996. Jones went into prison as a teenager and is serving life without parole. Palone told lawmakers she can never have what other parents do because of what Jones did to her son.

“No 18th birthday. No high school graduation. No college graduation. No wedding. No children. No grandchildren. That is what we have – nothing from age 16 on,” she said.

But the lines on this blur. There was testimony from one of the victim's families who argued that her son's killer -- and the other 48 deserve a second chance.

Yes, Sharletta Evans. Her 3-year old son Casson was killed in Denver in the 1990's in a drive- by shooting. She's developed a relationship with one of her son's killers, Raymond Johnson. He was 16 when he and other teenagers killed her son and was sentenced to life without parole. Evans pleaded before the legislature last week on behalf of the legislation that could grant Johnson and others parole.

"It's been a long journey, but to come to the conclusion that these were children that took my child's life were wayward and they have spent more time in prison in free world and realistically placing a child in adult prison, that to me is heinous," Evans told the House Judiciary Committee in early May.

Even with these pieces of legislation -- and the governor still has to sign them -- inmates would have to be approved for parole and wouldn't get released for quite some time. So how significant is this?

Advocates like Mary Ellen Johnson say this is a success. Johnson is with the Pendulum Foundation. It's a Colorado-based group that advocates for juvenile offenders in adult prisons. But she thinks 30- or 40-year sentences are still too long and she points to U.S. Supreme Court rulings that these inmates should have a reasonable chance of release.

Johnson points out that even if these men are granted parole, many will be in their 40's and 50's when they get out. She says research shows the average life span in prison is 57 years old.