Colorado Supreme Court Upholds New Sentences for Juvenile Offenders Serving Unconstitutional Mandatory Life Sentences Without the Possibility of Parole

by Michael Dohr

The Colorado Supreme Court recently had to decide whether Senate Bill 16-181, concerning the sentencing of persons convicted of class 1 felonies committed while the persons were juveniles, was unconstitutional because it violated the special legislation clause, Article 5, section 25 of the Colorado constitution. S.B. 16-181 is related to juvenile sentences that were determined to be unconstitutional based on two U.S. Supreme Court decisions.


In Colorado from July 1, 1990, to July 1, 2006, a juvenile convicted of a class 1 felony in a district court was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP). In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory LWOP sentence for a juvenile violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Then, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its decision applied retroactively. Together, these decisions invalidated the Colorado LWOP sentences for approximately 50 individuals.

That created a problem for the Colorado courts that had to resentence those individuals, because there was no statutory guidance for what type of sentence could be imposed. Ultimately, the Colorado Supreme Court was forced to decide: What sentence range would the legislature have adopted if it knew an LWOP sentence was unconstitutional? In People v. Tate, the Colorado Supreme Court implored the legislature to address the issue. In 2016, the General Assembly did so by passing S.B. 16-181.

S.B. 16-181 essentially creates two different sentencing ranges for those individuals serving the unconstitutional LWOP sentences. For those serving a sentence for a conviction of felony murder[1], the range is 30 to 50 years and for those serving a sentence for a conviction of another class 1 felony it is a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

Curtis Brooks was sentenced in 1997 to an LWOP sentence after being convicted of felony murder. Brooks sought resentencing of his unconstitutional sentence under the new sentencing scheme created in S.B. 16-181, asking the court to sentence him within the 30-to- 50-year range. The prosecution objected arguing the 30-to-50-year range violated the constitutional prohibition on special legislation. Originally, the district court agreed with the prosecution that the provision was unconstitutional, but then reversed itself on reconsideration. Before resentencing occurred, the prosecution appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court on the special legislation question.


The prosecution premised its claim on the fact that the sentencing provision had two different provisions, one for those who committed felony murder and one for those who committed any other class 1 felony. They argued that the felony murder sentencing provision was special legislation because it created a special class apart from everyone else subject to an unconstitutional LWOP sentence.

The special legislation clause was enacted, in part, to prevent legislation that applies to some classes but not others without a reasonable basis for distinguishing them. It was also intended to curb favoritism on the part of the General Assembly, prevent the state government from interfering with local affairs, and preclude the legislature from passing unnecessary laws to fit limited circumstances. To determine if a statute is special legislation, there is a two-part inquiry. First, is the classification adopted by the legislature a genuine class or is it logically and factually limited to a class of one and thus illusory? If the class is illusory, then it is prohibited special legislation. If not, then the question is whether the classification is reasonable.

The Colorado Supreme Court considered whether the classification the legislature created for those convicted of felony murder was genuine or illusory. First, it was estimated that the class in this case currently applies to at least 16 of the approximately 50 persons who are serving the unconstitutional LWOP sentence. The Court found that the class being larger than one favored a finding that it was genuine. Second, the Court found that the class was not limited by time, also suggesting it was genuine. Although there are currently at least 16 individuals in the class, an individual in the future who is convicted of felony murder for a cold case committed between 1990 and 2006 would also be subject to the classification. So, it was possible the class could expand beyond 16. Finally, the court analyzed the legislation and found that the legislature did not tailor the legislation to accomplish a particular purpose. Instead, the legislature was responding to fill the gap left by the U.S. Supreme Court’s determination that an LWOP sentence is unconstitutional. The Colorado Supreme Court found that the classification was genuine.

That led the Court to consider whether the classification was reasonable. To determine whether the classification is reasonable, a court must consider whether there is a reasonable relationship between the legislation’s legitimate stated purpose and the classification. The Court found it reasonable to treat those who committed felony murder different from those who committed a different class 1 felony in two contexts. The legislature’s plenary authority allows it to adopt more severe penalties for conduct with more grave conduct and vice versa, so the legislature reasonably decided to treat those convicted of felony murder differently from those convicted of a different class 1 felony. The court also found it was reasonable for the legislature to create a different sentencing scheme for those convicted between 1990 and 2006 rather than just applying the current scheme to those individuals since the gap was created by the U.S. Supreme Court decisions. It was reasonable to create a different scheme for those individuals, because the individuals had already served a decade or more in prison and thus were in a unique position compared to a person convicted today.

With these findings, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the juvenile sentencing provision adopted in S.B. 16-181 against claims it is special legislation.


[1] A person commits felony murder by committing or attempting to commit arson, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, sexual assault, or escape and in the course or furtherance of the crime or while in immediate flight therefrom the death of another person is caused. §18-3-102, C.R.S.