Litigating Lifetimes

Colorado Supreme Court keeps status duo on juvenile life sentences

A handful of companion cases decided by the Colorado Supreme Court largely leave state sentencing policies in tact. But it adds to a growing body of disparate case law interpreting federal decisions on how the criminal justice systems treats juveniles charged in crimes as adults.

Specifically and most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama in 2012 that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles charged with first-degree felonies were unconstitutional. The high court later clarified the rule as retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana last year. And in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that courts cannot impose life sentences on juveniles for non-homicide offenses.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery, Colorado had 48 offenders who were serving life without the possibility of parole for homicides committed before they were 18, although their cases are currently moving through court and parole board hearings after two bills passed by the Colorado state legislature last year mitigated their sentences in light of Montgomery. Now, rulings from the Colorado Supreme Court in Lucero v. People, Armstrong v. People and Estrada-Huerta v. People decided on May 22 mean 33 other inmates who are serving de facto life sentences of 50 years or more will likely not see any mitigation in their sentences.

In all three cases, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the Colorado Court of Appeals by finding neither Graham nor Miller apply in aggregate term-of-years sentences because Graham only dealt with life sentences for non-homicide offenses and Miller barred mandatory life-without-parole sentences under the Eighth Amendment. Neither addressed sentences with a sum of years for multiple offenses, Justice Allison Eid wrote for the unanimous panel.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the June 19, 2017 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.