Four-dozen men who fell through the cracks are destined to die in prison. The hopes of possible release died last week when a House committee killed HB1287, a bill that would have made a law enacted in 2006 retroactive.
The prison inmates are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were juveniles.
Many of the life without parole sentences were a response to the gang violence that erupted in Colorado cities in the early 1990s. More juveniles were tried as adults and given mandatory prison sentences, including life. A first-degree murder conviction mandates life without parole.
For juveniles in Colorado, the law changed in 2006 when the Legislature passed a bill capping the longest sentence that could be given a juvenile at 40 years. However, the law did not apply to juveniles sentenced to life without parole between 1991 and 2006.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles couldn’t be sentenced to life without parole for crimes other than murder.
Of the 48 inmates serving life sentences in state prisons for crimes they committed as children, about one-third were convicted of murder.
Phillip Michael Montoya of Pueblo is one of the 48. He and David Carrillo were found guilty of first-degree murder in the gang-related slaying of Chris Romo in June 1993 and are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Montoya was 16 years old at the time of the crime; Carrillo was 19.
Carrillo’s appeal of his conviction was heard in District Judge David Crockenberg’s court in February. Carrillo said he received inadequate legal counsel in his defense. Crockenberg has not yet ruled in the case.
Montoya’s juvenile status gave him a slim hope for the possibility of parole when in August 2007, former Gov. Bill Ritter formed the Juvenile Clemency Board by executive order. Its mission was to review clemency and commutation requests by juveniles who were tried as adults and sentenced to state prison.
“As a former prosecutor, protecting the people of Colorado and ensuring the fair administration of justice are extremely important to me,” Ritter said in a news release at the time. “We can further those goals by subjecting our criminal justice system — including the punishment of juvenile offenders who were tried, convicted and sentenced as adults — to regular review and scrutiny.”
More than a dozen of the former juveniles serving life without parole petitioned for clemency to the board and were denied. Their hopes for executive action that could open the possibility of parole were dashed when Ritter left office without acting on any of the cases.
In his last month as governor, Ritter commuted the sentences of 28 individuals, including four juveniles, but none serving life without parole.
Montoya said that applying to the Juvenile Clemency Board has been emotional torture. He completed the application for clemency and waited 18 months before a prison caseworker told him he had been denied. He never has received a written response.
Mary Ellen Johnson, a spokeswoman for The Pendulum Foundation — an advocacy group with the aim of ending life without parole sentences for juveniles — applauded Ritter’s commutations, but was critical of his failure to act on any of the juveniles serving life without parole.
Johnson said Ritter formed the Juvenile Clemency Board in 2007, the year after the Legislature voted to limit the maximum sentence for a juvenile to 40 years to life “to save himself another bruising legislative battle.”
“That Governor Ritter would not lower the sentence of one juvenile lifer is unconscionable and reinforces the need for the Legislature to act to rectify this sentencing imbalance,” Johnson said.
“Forty-eight young men and women are trapped in the criminal justice system. The Juvenile Clemency Board was supposed to provide a measure of justice. It did not. We will now look to the Legislature for that justice.”
HB1287, introduced in the Colorado House on March 21 by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, was the latest legislative attempt to make the ban on life sentences without parole for juveniles retroactive. It died in committee.
“Forty-eight individuals are going to spend the rest of their lives in prison for things they did as a child, in the eyes of the law,” Levy said in a telephone interview.
She emphasized that the proposed legislation was not a “get out of jail free” ticket.
“It (would have given them) a shot at parole, but many will spend the rest of their lives in jail,” she said. The decision to release eligible inmates from prison would have remained with the Department of Corrections and the parole board.
“For those who are unfit to re-enter society, the parole board will do the right thing,” Levy said.
Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut said he supported a similar measure when he was in the Legislature.
“There was a proposal that juveniles serving life without parole should be able to apply for parole after serving 15 years. My position is that everybody that’s incarcerated should always be able to ask for parole. That isn’t the law, it’s just my philosophy.”
Thiebaut said a sentence of life without parole is too harsh for a juvenile.
“A lot of these kids, 20 or 25 years later, might be a completely different person. They deserve a chance to prove they are parole-worthy. Even in first-degree murder cases, you might have someone who has rehabilitated themselves,” Thiebaut said.
The word “possibility” is pivotal, in Thiebaut’s philosophy.
“There are real criminals and they are dangerous and should never be released. I don’t think anyone is asking that dangerous people be put back on the streets.”
Former Pueblo District Attorney Gus Sandstrom said HB1287 was a bad idea. In most cases, Colorado prosecutors have sought life without parole sentences only in first-degree murder cases.
Asked specifically about David Carrillo’s and Montoya’s conviction in the Chris Romo murder, Sandstrom remembered them as young, but because of their gang experience “were not juveniles.”
Sandstrom said Montoya and Carrillo had a crew they controlled and they carried out Romo’s murder with adult-like planning. He doesn’t buy the argument that these juvenile criminals should receive leniency.
“I feared they would learn to commit crimes in more sophisticated ways,” he said. “Frankly, a 35-year-old (criminal) has a better chance of changing.”
Chief District Judge Dennis Maes welcomes the debate.
“It’s a good thing to have a discussion about. I’m not sure I would limit it to juveniles. I don’t mean to diminish crime, but if all you’re interested in is punishment, life without parole does that.”
Maes, who has had to sentence juvenile defendants to LWOP, said he might be open to the possibility of parole, but only after the offender served a lengthy sentence.
For Maes, public safety is the primary consideration in making parole a possibility for any criminal.
“Is there still a threat to society? I hope this thing gets serious consideration.”
Montoya says the debate over life without parole has been demoralizing.
He received a letter from The Pendulum Foundation telling him of the proposed legislation that could have made parole possible for him.
“I didn’t finish reading it,” he said. “I didn’t want to hear about it.”
Key figures in the debate are (clockwise from top left) Phillip Michael Montoya and David Carillo, sentenced to life as juveniles; Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut, who favors the possibility of parole; and former DA Gus Sandstrom, who doesn’t.