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Introduction

photo of a prison yard

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that allows children under 18 to be sentenced to life without parole. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that more than 2,000 inmates are currently serving life without parole in the United States for crimes committed when they were juveniles; in the rest of the world, there are only 12 juveniles serving the same sentence, according to figures reported to the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In When Kids Get Life, FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel (The O.J. Verdict, Innocence Lost) travels to Colorado to profile five individuals sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.

Colorado was an early pioneer in juvenile justice, focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. But in the late 1980s and 1990s, when a sharp increase in violent crimes by young offenders attracted enormous press coverage, legislators nationwide clamped down. In Colorado, the General Assembly eliminated the possibility of parole for life sentences and expanded the power of district attorneys to treat juveniles as adults.

In 1992, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires that juvenile imprisonment focus on rehabilitation, but the U.S. reserved the right to sentence juveniles to life without parole in extreme cases involving the most hardened of criminals -- the worst of the worst.

 

Jacob Ind

The crime scene was gruesome. In December of 1992, 15-year-old Jacob Ind murdered his mother and stepfather. The troubled family life that led to such a heinous crime slowly unfolded over the course of his trial. Jacob's defense claimed he and his brother had endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of his stepfather. Prosecutors argued the defense was exaggerating the abuse to give Jacob an excuse to kill.

Jacob is now 29. "All I wanted was something to end," he told FRONTLINE. "I didn't really grasp the permanency of their deaths. I definitely didn't understand the gravity of what it means to kill somebody." But the mandatory sentencing law for first-degree murder made no exceptions, regardless of age. Judge Jane Looney declared at sentencing that her "hands were tied." She was required by law to sentence Jacob to life without parole.

 

Nathan Ybanez and Erik Jensen

In 1998, Nathan Ybanez and Erik Jensen were high school students in a wealthy Denver suburb and members of a band called Troublebound. Erik came from a secure, affluent household; Nathan came from an abusive one. Within a year and a half of their meeting, Nathan killed his mother, and Erik was implicated in the crime by another friend involved in the cover-up.

Both Nathan and Erik were sentenced to life without parole. How did two boys with no criminal records end up involved in murder and penalized with a sentence the U.S. claims to reserve for "hardened criminals" who constitute "an extreme danger to society?" "In 10 years I'll either be on the streets or dead," Erik, now serving his ninth year in jail, told FRONTLINE. "I'm not going to keep doing this."

 

Trevor Jones

Trevor Jones was trying to scam $100 from a classmate, but the plan went awry; the gun he had feigned offering for sale discharged and killed Matt Foley, who was attempting to purchase the weapon.

At the trial, the jury determined that Trevor had no intention of shooting anyone and what had happened was reckless manslaughter -- basically, a very bad accident. But because the accident occurred in the commission of armed robbery, Trevor was also found guilty of felony murder, which carried a mandatory life sentence. He is now spending his 10th year in prison.

Felony murder is a controversial law that charges criminals with murder, regardless of intent, if a death occurs in the commission of another felony. And felony murder assigns the same culpability to everyone involved in the felony, even if the actual murder is committed by only one person in a group, unbeknownst to the others.

Alison Parker, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, has estimated that 26 percent of juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole nationwide were convicted of felony murder.

 

Andrew Medina

Andrew Medina was also charged and sentenced for felony murder. He was only 15 when he and two acquaintances attempted a carjacking. No one knew for sure which of the three suspects fired the shot that killed the driver, 17-year-old Kristopher Lohrmeyer. But two of the suspects made deals with the prosecutor, pleading guilty to second-degree murder and naming Andy as the triggerman.

Andy, however, was not convicted of pulling the trigger but simply for being party to the attempted carjacking. That was enough for felony murder, and he was sentenced to life without parole.

Andy is currently in the Colorado State Penitentiary, the state's supermax facility, where he has served more than four years locked down in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.

 

The Ongoing Debate

In spite of the dire predictions of the '80s and '90s, teenage crime rates have gone down. Fear of young offenders seems to have subsided. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles, and there were some discussions across the country about re-examining the harsh punishments meted out to juvenile offenders.

In 2006, Colorado passed a bill ending its practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole; instead, juveniles who receive a life sentence will have to serve 40 years before they are eligible for parole. But the bill was not retroactive, and the 45 former juveniles now serving life without parole in Colorado -- including Jacob, Erik, Nathan, Trevor and Andy -- will likely die in prison.

"The decision to not make it retroactive was probably a compromise, perhaps a political deal," Columbia University law professor Jeffrey Fagan told FRONTLINE. "The families of victims are very powerful advocates." Gail Palone, the mother of Trevor's victim, is unforgiving: "At least their family gets to go to the prison system and spend Thanksgiving with them. We never got that. We have to go to the cemetery. When Trevor was found guilty, they promised us that he would get life in prison with no chance of parole. The state promised us that, and the state should see to it that that's what happens."

The opponents of juvenile life without parole vow to continue their effort. Curt Jensen, Erik's father and co-founder of the Pendulum Foundation, told FRONTLINE: "It's been an ongoing battle now for six years basically, for educating the public and working with the state Legislature. It's a battle that only ends when this state Legislature and the next governor agree that juveniles have to be treated differently than adults and that they have to be given a second chance."

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posted may. 8, 2007

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