The 110-year prison sentence imposed upon truck driver Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was extreme, and Governor Polis achieved the right result by using his executive power of clemency to correct this injustice.
While so much about the case was exceptional, the sentence itself was no outlier. Colorado’s sentencing laws are incredibly complicated, and often produce eye-popping sentences.
There are hundreds of individuals in Colorado’s prisons serving virtual life sentences, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Brown. Without some form of legal relief, they will die in prison — something lawmakers may not have anticipated at the time the legislation was passed.
For example, Colorado has a habitual offender statute, which arose out of the “three strikes” era of criminal justice. If a person has prior felony convictions and is charged as a “habitual criminal,” the law requires a judge to impose a sentence that is three to four times the maximum penalty, or, in some cases, up to life imprisonment, even in nonviolent cases. One of my clients is serving 48 years for using a friend’s financial information without permission to finance a car.
Another problematic statute requires judges to impose back-to-back sentences when a person is convicted of more than one offense that is designated as a “crime of violence,” even if the charges stemmed from the same incident. This is what happened to Aguilera-Mederos, despite the fact that many people would not consider his actions to be “violent.”
Scores of people have been convicted under these draconian statutes. Another man whose story Jeanne Segil and I profiled in an article we wrote last winter is serving 128 years for attempted offenses in which no one was injured.
Experts who study mass incarceration agree that lengthy sentences are counterproductive to public safety and are of limited deterrent value. And while Gov. Polis should exercise his clemency power more frequently, a system that relies on individual sentence commutations is not a sufficient remedy. The only way to achieve sensible results on a broader scale is through legislative reform.
Colorado must do away with mandatory sentences.
The behavior and choices of people caught up in the criminal legal system often are shaped by experiences with trauma, abuse, neglect, and mental illness. Many of them experience crime as victims before they become defendants.
Mandatory sentencing statutes prohibit judges from considering such circumstances. Going forward, judges must have discretion to consider factors that justify a lesser sentence at the time it is imposed. However, we also need a mechanism to take a second look at the extreme sentences of people who are currently incarcerated.
California and Washington, D.C. have passed second-look sentencing statutes, allowing courts to reconsider sentences after people have served significant time in prison. These statutes do not guarantee release; they simply allow for the opportunity to ask for a sentence reduction.
Research demonstrates that people often age out of crime, and it is extremely costly to incarcerate the elderly due to health care needs. Studies have shown that reincarceration rates among people who are released after serving lengthy prison sentences, even for serious crimes, are minimal.
No one can predict at the time a sentence is imposed what a person will be like decades later. Many people serving long sentences have transformed. If released, they would have much to offer society. According to the Sentencing Project, legislators in 25 states have now introduced second-look sentencing bills. Colorado should be among them.
The case of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos shows that politicians listen to public outcries. It is inconceivable that his sentence would have been modified so quickly if there had not been a protest at the capitol, a Change.org petition garnering five million signatures, and a Twitter thread from Kim Kardashian.
Unusual events to be sure, but this case presents an opportunity for Colorado citizens to learn more about the usual cruelty of our criminal legal system, and to use their voices to call for more rational sentencing policies.
Kristen Nelson, of Denver, is a criminal defense attorney and director of the Powell Project, which advocates for reform of excessive sentencing practices.
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