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I. Summary

“You can’t just tack a label on a kid and throw him away in a box.”  

—Joseph H., Buena Vista Correctional Facility, Buena Vista, Colorado, July 28, 2004.

Across Colorado, residents are beginning to question whether children who commit a crime before the age of eighteen should ever be sentenced to life without parole. Historically, this harshest of prison sentences was restricted to adults. But as the Colorado legislature expanded adult prosecution of child offenders, it also expanded the possibility that life without parole would be imposed on children. At least forty-six such youth offenders are currently incarcerated in Colorado prisons with life without parole sentences.

Youth who break the law should be held accountable. Imprisonment may be a just punishment for those who commit serious violent crimes. But a sentence of life without parole for child offenders is cruel, unfair, and unnecessary. It violates common sense and universally recognized human rights principles. Moreover, while we recognize the importance of efforts to protect community safety, achieving that goal does not necessitate ignoring the potential of children to mature and to reclaim their lives. Change in Colorado’s laws to prevent the imposition of life without parole on youth offenders is long overdue.

The differences between children and adults are obvious. Because of the immaturity of children, state and federal laws require children to achieve a certain age before they can legally engage in a wide range of activities. In Colorado, eighteen is the minimum age to vote, get married without parental consent, serve on a jury, access school records, buy cigarettes, or sign contracts, and twenty-one is the minimum age to buy alcohol.

In Colorado’s system of criminal justice, however, the commission of a serious crime instantly changes young teens of fourteen, and in some cases even twelve-year-olds, into adults for purposes of trial and sentencing. Juvenile court judges and prosecutors can send such young offenders to adult courts with little or no consideration of their maturity, backgrounds, or the public goals to be served by such treatment. Convicted in adult courts, child offenders receive adult sentences, including life without parole. Indeed, Colorado law requires judges to impose life without parole on children as young as twelve if they commit first degree murder. As the father of a teen offender serving life without parole said, “I’m a former cop. I’m a true believer in law and order. But my son was a child when this happened. He wasn’t thinking like an adult, and he wasn’t an adult  . . . how is it that the law can treat him as if he is one?”1

Proponents of harsh sentences for children argue that those who commit serious crimes have forfeited their right to childhood. They believe youth who commit adult crimes should receive adult sentences. “Adult time for adult crime” may be a catchy phrase, but it reflects a poor understanding of criminal justice principles. If punishment is to be fair and proportionate, if the punishment is to fit the crime, both the nature of the offense and the culpability of the offender must be taken into account.

Children do not have adults’ developed abilities to think, to weigh consequences, to make sound decisions, to control their impulses, and to resist group pressures. They can commit the same acts as adults, but by virtue of their immaturity, they cannot be as blameworthy or culpable. There is also a growing body of scientific evidence of specific, physical differences between the brains of adolescents and adults indicating that impulsive or aggressive acts by child offenders typically have a different origin and warrant a different response than equivalent acts by adults. The anguish and anger of a victim’s family and friends may be the same whether a homicide is committed by a child or an adult. But justice requires a different sentence when the offender is a child.

For decades, Colorado children who committed crimes were handled by a juvenile justice system created to ensure their unique characteristics and needs were weighed appropriately in deciding the state’s response to their offenses. But in the last thirty years, Colorado changed its laws to permit many children to be tried and sentenced as adults. The legislative changes were part of a nationwide trend to utilize harsh sentencing as a way to respond to juvenile crime and concern about so-called juvenile “super-predators.”2  By the summer of 1993, Colorado’s notorious “summer of violence,” all the laws were in place to punish teens convicted of serious crimes as harshly as adults, with the exception of the death penalty.

The forty-six young (the oldest was born in 1974) men and women in Colorado prisons sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as children do not fit a “super-predator” profile. Of the twenty-four about whom Human Rights Watch has   detailed information, a few had relatively minor delinquency records, none have histories of repeated violence, and for many the crime for which they were sentenced to life without parole was their first offense of any sort. Some were involved with gangs, but most were not. They came from all walks of life, from wealthy suburbs and small ranching towns. They include honor roll students and kids who maintained a “C” average. They are white, black, Latino, and Asian-American. Their family lives ranged from supportive to abusive, and their psychological health varied as well.

Some of these youth offenders entered Colorado’s prisons while they were still children; others were eighteen or older by the time they were convicted. But all have faced the same conditions in prison as the much older adults with whom they are incarcerated: gangs, sexual predators, and other forms of violence. They also confront special hardships inherent in their sentence. They wrestle with the anger and emotional turmoil of coming to grips with the knowledge they will die in prison. They are denied educational, vocational, and other programs to develop their minds and skills because correctional authorities reserve them for prisoners who will someday be released. They face prison visiting rules that limit visits to people they knew before their incarceration—meaning that someone who enters prison at age sixteen may only receive visits from family or early high school friends for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly, child offenders sentenced to life without parole in Colorado believe their state has thrown them away.

Recognizing the inherent differences between children and adults, international human rights law prohibits sentencing any child (defined as anyone below the age of eighteen) to life without parole or to the death penalty. It recognizes that the diverse purposes of punishment—deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation—can be served by sentencing youth offenders to punishments that take their immaturity, as well as their potential to grow and change, into account. At least 133 countries around the world have decided that children should not be sentenced to die in prison. They agree that all children, however heinous their crimes, should have a chance at freedom when they are mature and can demonstrate their rehabilitation. Colorado’s laws should be changed to give its young offenders that chance.

[1] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Frank C., Colorado, October 22, 2004. Throughout this report, Human Rights Watch uses the actual first name and initial of the interviewee with their informed consent. Whenever an interviewee preferred his or her identity to be disguised, we have used a pseudonym and expressly indicated such use in the relevant citation. Everyone interviewed for this report was age eighteen or over at the time of the interview.

[2] See, e.g., John J. Dilulio, Jr., “The Coming of the Super-Predators,” Weekly Standard, November 27, 1995, p. 53 (discussing a purported new breed of extremely violent juvenile offenders); Peter Annin, "Superpredators Arrive: Should We Cage the New Breed of Vicious Kids?,” Newsweek, January 22, 1996, p. 57. See also Human Rights Watch, No Minor Matter: Children in Maryland’s Jails (New York: Human Rights Watch 1999), p. 13-16 (explaining that while the super-predator pronouncements made “good sound bites,” they did not “match up to the facts.”).

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