Following a trilogy of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that banned life without parole for juvenile offenders, about 50 Colorado inmates who received that particular sentence prior to the court declaring it unconstitutional have had an uncertain fate. Now, for the second time since 2015, the question of how our state’s legal system should process these cases is in the hands of the Colorado Supreme Court.
Last month, the state’s highest court heard oral arguments in People v. Brooks, a case in which the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office challenged the constitutionality of a 2016 law passed by the Colorado legislature. The 2016 law, Senate Bill 16-181, provided guidelines for how the courts should resentence each of these approximately 50 individuals in question, who are still serving the now-unconstitutional sentence of life without parole. (Between 1990 and 2006, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder in Colorado received a mandatory life sentence; after 2006, the sentence was changed to life with parole eligibility at 40 years.)
For the majority of these former juveniles, SB 181 simply offered the sentence currently on the books — 40 to life — as well as a chance for earned time. However, for about 16 of the offenders who were found guilty of felony murder — a provision in the statute that allows for a first-degree murder conviction even for so-called accomplices — SB 181 provided a second option: If during a resentencing hearing, a district court judge found “extraordinary mitigating circumstances,” the judge could decide to issue the individual a determinate sentence between 30 and 50 years.