The Colorado Supreme Court last week upheld a law allowing state courts to resentence inmates who received life sentences without parole as juveniles.
A Colorado district attorney challenged the 2016 law, which created a distinction in resentencing for a handful of state prison inmates serving a life sentence for felony murder. The felony murder rule allows a defendant to be charged with first-degree murder for a killing that occurs during a dangerous felony, even if the killing was unintentional.
Colorado law from 1990 to 2006 mandated a life sentence for felony murder. Lawmakers later adjusted the rules to include a chance for parole after 40 years.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to sentence people under age 18 to life in prison without parole, calling it cruel and unusual. In 2016, the high court made the ruling retroactive, forcing all 50 states to change their laws and resentence inmates who received life in prison as juveniles.
Later that year, the Colorado legislature passed resentencing guidelines that allowed for two options for the estimated 50 inmates in Colorado with unconstitutional sentences: For most, a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years for intentional first-degree murder, but for an estimated 16 people convicted of felony murder, the law allowed for the possibility of a new sentence of 30 to 50 years in prison.
Last week’s Supreme Court ruling came in the resentencing case of Curtis Brooks, a man convicted of felony murder as a 15-year-old. Brooks, who has served 23 years in prison, was involved in a 1995 carjacking that resulted in a shooting death. Though he was present and carrying a gun, he did not fire the fatal shot.
George Brauchler, district attorney for the state’s 18th Judicial District, challenged the felony murder exception for juveniles, arguing it was unconstitutional to write a law that applied to such a small group of individuals. A state judge first agreed with Brauchler, then indicated he had changed his mind and would grant Brooks a shorter sentence. Earlier this year, the district attorney asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the matter, and on Sept. 17, the state’s highest court upheld the guidelines as constitutional.
“The Supreme Court has now spoken, we know what the law is, and we accept that the ruling is now the law of our state,” Brauchler said in a statement after the ruling. “It is important that we now see that Mr. Brooks is back in court as soon as possible for resentencing under the 2016 legislation.”
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann argued for the law before the high court. In an opinion column for The Denver Post after the ruling, she said felony murder cases are the most difficult and challenging cases for her to consider, but argued the distinction between felony murder and Class 1 felonies does not create a special class.
“The bottom line for me is that I do not think that a sentence to life without ever having the opportunity to be considered for parole or the hope of ever being released from prison is appropriate for juveniles,” McCann wrote. “As noted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision, children really are ‘different.’”
A criminal’s age does not change the loss of the life of a victim, according to Elisabeth Boehm of Prison Fellowship. “When your family member is abused or gone, it doesn’t matter how old the abuser or murderer is,” she said.
But she also said resentencing for those convicted as juveniles allows for hope, and juveniles are more likely to reform than adult offenders.
“Given the chance of restoration, the juvenile who has committed murder or some other heinous crime may examine his life, confront his actions, and repent,” Boehm wrote. “All of this is far, far less likely to occur if a juvenile has no hope of getting out of prison. If you are going to die in prison no matter what you do, why try?”