CU rape case sparks debate over Colorado's indeterminate sentencing law

Posted at 7:01 PM, Aug 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-16 22:15:39-04

DENVER -- Following the national outcry over the sentencing of a former University of Colorado student, there has been renewed criticism of Colorado's indeterminate sentencing law.

A headline in the Boulder Daily Camera asks "Is Colorado's indeterminate sentencing law keeping rapists out of prison?"

In 1998, Colorado passed the Lifetime Supervision Act, which requires certain sex offenders to get treatment and apply for parole before being released from prison.

But critics argue it has had an unintended consequence because of a lack of treatment resources; It effectively
means a life sentence for sex offenders with the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors believed that concern was part of Judge Patrick Butler's decision to sentence Austin Wiikerson to two years in jail work-release and probation in a felony rape case.

"Oftentimes, judges are in a no-win situation," said former Denver prosecutor Karen Steinhauser, who is now a criminal defense attorney. "I think it puts judges in the very difficult situation of 'Can this person be rehabilitated' or do they risk a potential life sentence?"

Steinhauser said judges can control the minimum sentence, but the upper limits are determined by the parole board and are outside of the judge's control.

"They know that there is the possibility, and a very real possibility, that that person could end up spending the rest of their life in prison," said Steinhauser.

The most recent Department of Correction report shows only 15 percent of inmates with indeterminate sentences were released last year.

She said that may be the reason judges have decided on probation in some rape cases instead of parole.

"Oftentimes, the waiting lists for people to even get treatment are huge," said Steinhauser, who said a lack of resources means few offenders can be deemed rehabilitated.
"A sex offense is a horrific crime; the effect on victims is horrendous, but I never believed as a prosecutor, nor do I believe now, that every sex offender deserves life in prison," she said. 

But Rep. Mike Foote (D-Lafayette) said critics of indeterminate sentencing have overstated the problem.

"When we hear criticisms of indeterminate sentencing, it's not exactly correct," said Foote, pointing out that the legislature has put more money into treatment programs.

In 2013, lawmakers approved a funding request for $956,795 to increase staff by 13 positions, which allowed the DOC to perform more customized, individualized treatment for sex offenders.

In Fiscal Year 2014/2015, lawmakers approved approximately $1.2 million for the Sex Offender Treatment and Monitoring Program.

Foote said that the number of people on the waitlist has decreased, and the program is moving in the right direction.

"It's the wrong solution to get rid of indeterminate sentencing outright," said Foote. "The right solution is to increase treatment, so they are treated by the time they get out."