The movement to abolish life without parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders made a big gain this week. On Tuesday Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat, signed an executive order creating a clemency board specifically to grant relief to the forty-five juvies currently serving LWOP sentences. Last year, thanks to the efforts of Democratic State Senator Cheri Jahn and Republican State Rep. Lynn Hefley, the state passed a law barring any future LWOPs. Jahn and Hefley had hoped to include a clemency provision for current inmates at the time, but the state’s DAs fought it down during negotiation. The clemency board, then, should be considered a compromise between the humane option (immediate relief for all LWOPs) and the intolerable status quo.
“I don’t know of any state that has retooled its clemency process for juveniles to recognize their rehabilitative potential,” Alison Parker, senior researcher on juvenile issues for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told the Denver Post. “This is an excellent way to approach the issue.” The Post’s editors also praised Ritter’s decision with a middle-of-the-road editorial on Thursday, writing:
Young people who break the law should be held accountable for their crimes. But since youngsters who commit violent offenses, even murder, often do so when they are still mentally and emotionally immature, they should have an avenue for appealing their sentences after a reasonable time to the governor…. We think it’s a fair and judicious way of handling youth crime, considering youngsters’ potential for reform and the medical experts who say teen brains aren’t fully developed. The rules of the board are strict enough, requiring a majority vote before a recommendation is sent to the governor, that we don’t envision a rash of clemency or commutation decisions.
It’s too bad we won’t see that rash break out in Colorado, but I’m glad Ritter got the itch. His clemency board, the first of its kind, charts a course away from LWOP that other states may see fit to follow. In the wake of the 2005 Supreme Court decision on Roper v. Simmons, which abolished the death penalty for juveniles, it follows that LWOP should be the next to go. If the Court has acknowledged that it’s excessively cruel and barbaric to execute offenders whose moral faculties aren’t fully developed, then why should we accept a practice that locks them up for the rest of their lives?
There are more than 2,500 juvenile offenders currently serving life without parole in the United States, and they all deserve the same opportunity to appeal their cases as the forty-five in Colorado. It might take some time to grant them their due relief, but surely they’ll wait. They’ve been given no other choice.