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IX. Protecting Colorado’s Communities

Criminal punishment serves Colorado’s legitimate interests in protecting communities from crime through deterrence, retribution, and rehabilitation.116 Life without parole sentences for youth offenders do not further any of these purposes. The state would lose nothing significant in its crime fighting arsenal if it eliminated this harshest of prison sentences for children.

Given adolescents’ limited ability to anticipate the consequences of their actions and rationally assess their options, it is not surprising that research has failed to show that the threat of adult punishment has any deterrent effect on them.117 But even if children did pause to consider possible sentences before committing a crime, there is no reason to believe that a prison sentence for a term of years would not deter crime just as well as the sentence of life without parole. This is particularly likely given that adolescents cannot really grasp the true significance of the sentence.

Punishment serves a retributive purpose when it gives the offender his or her “just deserts.”118 But as the Supreme Court has stated, “The heart of the retribution rationale is that a criminal sentence must be directly related to the personal culpability of the criminal offender.”119 Given the lower culpability of child offenders, a sentence for a term of years, rather than life without parole, is surely the only punishment that a child offender “deserves.”

With regard to Colorado’s final sentencing goal, that of rehabilitation, the sentence of life without parole not only does not further it—it negates it. The sentence sends an unequivocal message to children that they are banished from the community forever, so there is no point or opportunity to attempt to learn or reform themselves in prison. As one young man told a Human Rights Watch researcher, “Seems like they believe that since we’re sentenced to life in prison, society says, ‘well we locked them up, they are disposed of, removed.’”120

Colorado has the responsibility of ensuring community safety, and it uses the criminal justice system to do so. But the state is also responsible for ensuring that justice is in fact served when a person is tried, convicted, and sentenced. The terrible crimes committed by children can ruin lives, causing injury and death. Colorado’s sentencing choices must reflect the harm the children have caused. But it must also acknowledge their youth—their immaturity and their capacity to grow and change. Sentencing children to prison for life contradicts the very principles of justice Colorado seeks to uphold.

[116] Colorado’s stated purposes for sentencing are “(a) To punish a convicted offender by assuring the imposition of a sentence he deserves in relation to the seriousness of his offense; (b) To assure the fair and consistent treatment of all convicted offenders by eliminating unjustified disparity in sentences, providing fair warning of the nature of the sentence to be imposed, and establishing fair procedures for the imposition of sentences; (c) To prevent crime and promote respect for the law by providing an effective deterrent to others likely to commit similar offenses; and (d) To promote rehabilitation by encouraging correctional programs that elicit the voluntary cooperation and participation of convicted offenders.” See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-1-102.5.

[117] See Simon Singer and David McDowall, “Criminalizing Delinquency: The Deterrent Effects of the New York Juvenile Offender Law,” Law and Society Review, Vol. 22, p. 529, 1988.

[118] See Shepard v. Taylor, 556 F.2d 648, 653 (2d Cir., 1977) (citing United States v. Kaylor, 491 F.2d 1133 (2d Cir. 1974) (en banc), vacated for reconsideration on other grounds, 418 U.S. 909 (1974); United States v. Waters, 141 U.S. App. D.C. 289 (1970)).

[119] Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137, 149 (1987).

[120] Human Rights Watch interview with Samuel M., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 26, 2004.

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