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The Colorado Territorial Prison in Cañon City. (Frank Carey, via Creative Commons)

Eric Davis was 17 years old when he shot and killed a man during an armed robbery. 

As a result, Davis spent most of his adult life in prison. But now, at age 52, he’s living free again because of a 2016 law that gave Coloradans serving long prison sentences for serious crimes they committed as minors a chance at early release. 

He is among eight men and one woman who have completed a three-year, intensive reentry program under the Juveniles Convicted as Adults Program and won early release from prison on parole, according to the Department of Corrections. 

“The first 14 years in prison, I was just existing and surviving,” Davis told The Colorado Sun last week, as he was on his way to get his driver’s license after being released from prison in March. But it took another 20 years of hard work and determination while behind bars, Davis said, to earn early release. 

Colorado lawmakers are now on a path to expand the program to people whose crimes were committed before age 21.

House Bill 1209 expands eligibility for JCAP to include people who committed a felony offense before the age of 21 and have served at least 20 to 30 years of their sentence. Prisoners must apply to and be accepted into JCAP. After completing the three-year program, they must also receive approval from the Colorado State Parole Board and governor to be granted early release. 

The goal is to give a second chance to people who have acknowledged the harm of their crime and have worked toward growth, said state Rep. Lindsey Daugherty, an Arvada Democrat and a prime sponsor of the legislation.

“Clearly there are people who should never be released from prison,” she said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month. “But we are asking this state to recognize that when someone is sent to prison at these young ages, there are some people who can change and become productive members of society.”

Colorado created the program in 2016 following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that found sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The comprehensive reentry program includes education and work programs, mental health support and community participation, and teaches life skills such as how to navigate a public bus route or set a secure online password. 

“You’ve grown up in prison and haven’t had an opportunity to learn how to boil an egg, balance a checkbook, or how to apply for a loan,” said state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat who is another prime sponsor of the legislation. “This is giving them the opportunities to learn those basic skills so that if they do get released and come out to the community, then they’re set up for success.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

House Bill 1209 excludes people who have been convicted of first-degree murder or committed sexual offenses, as well as people who are currently being treated for a serious mental illness. 

To be accepted into JCAP, participants must, among other things, have a high school diploma or GED, accept responsibility for their criminal behavior and “show positive growth through maturity.” 

“This is a careful and multi-layered process that’s designed to balance the conflicting goals of punishment and rehabilitation,” Daugherty said, “ … and this bill does it, but only for those who earn it.” 

But support for the bill isn’t universal.

A number of families of crime victims have spoken out against the measure. Offering violent offenders early release disregards the lifelong loss of victims’ families, and violates the closure they are given at the time of sentencing, said Victoria McGrath, whose 33-year-old son Nicholas Lewis was killed in 2016 by two 16-year-olds. 

“Not all crimes can be excused as poor choices or having an immature brain,” McGrath testified at the Capitol last month. “Those of us lucky enough to get what we think is justice served, and finally after hearing a verdict in a sentence that will put the offender away for many years, will be re-victimized and re-traumatized.” 

Former Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on behalf of current 18th Judicial District District Attorney John Kellner, said allowing early release for violent offenders who have already been convicted constitutes a “betrayal” for victims and their families. 

“All the people we’ve heard from thus far, other than this panel that I’m on, really heavy emphasis on hope for the offender, hope for the violent criminal. But there’s another group that deserves hope —- that’s the victims,” said Brauchler, a Republican. 

Proponents of the legislation cite growing research on adolescent brain development that shows the part of the brain that regulates impulse control, decision-making and helps teens judge risk and rewards undergoes significant changes throughout adolescence, and doesn’t fully develop until age 25. 

“Thus, many have argued that courts should not hold children as culpable for risk-taking behaviors,” said Apryl Alexander, an associate professor of professional psychology at the University of Denver, testifying at the Capitol last month. “Many of the youth in the juvenile justice system have faced traumatic experiences that impact their psychosocial functioning.”

The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council has not taken a position on the bill, citing differing views on the legislation among the district attorneys it represents. 

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, a Democrat who is in support of the bill, said the measure is not “automatic release” for violent offenders, noting the application process and list of requirements JCAP participants must meet before they are even considered for release. 

“Some of your witnesses have testified about the loss of their loved one in a first-degree murder situation, those individuals will not be eligible for this program,” McCann said. “It can be re-traumatizing for a victim’s family. But I believe that what we’re doing with this bill is the right thing to do, in terms of allowing that individual the opportunity to prove that he or she can be rehabilitated and reenter society.”

And not all crime victims are against the bill.

Sharletta Evans, whose 3-year-old son, Casson, was killed by a group of teenagers in a drive-by shooting in 1995, visited with Raymond Johnson, one of her son’s murderers, as part of a restorative justice program in 2012

Johnson, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, has completed the JCAP program. The parole board will hear Johnson’s case next month, said Evans, meaning he could be approved for early release in the next few months. 

“I have adopted him as my son. I will see Raymond in the free world because he has proven that he is better than the worst act he has committed,” Evans testified in support of the bill. “There is a difference between someone that has committed murder and someone that is a murderer.”

According to the Department of Corrections, which does not take positions on sentencing policy, there are currently 21 state prisoners who meet all of the bill’s eligibility criteria, with five others who could apply to have their records evaluated. Another 15 people haven’t served enough time to qualify, but they could be eligible in the future. 

“Evaluations of each applicant will have to take place case-by-case. This program was not designed to be all-inclusive,” DOC spokesperson Annie Skinner said in an email. 

Davis, just four weeks out of prison, has just started working two jobs and is living with a friend until he gets on his feet. He said he’s motivated to give back to the world, knowing how much he has taken from others. 

“I took a son from his father, a husband from his wife…I would understand if they wanted me to spend my entire life in prison,” said Davis. 

“What I would hope is that, after 30 years, if I had done the right things in prison and grown as a human being, and added to the world,” said Davis, “that they would at least be open to understanding that … I just made a horrible decision, and that I had made a decision (now) to live a good life.”

Expanding the program would require additional staff, with an estimated $142,156 in new spending by the Department of Corrections in fiscal year 2021-22 and $188,719 in upcoming fiscal years, according to a fiscal analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff. 

House Bill 1209 passed the House Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support after Penrose Republican Rep. Stephanie Luck voted in favor of the measure. It’s now headed to the House Appropriations Committee. 

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member.

Twitter: @thyanhvo