A 110-year prison sentence for a Colorado truck drive who said he lost control of his brakes prompted national outcry that draw attention to The Centennial State's sentencing laws.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis reduced Rogel Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence to 10 years, one week after a Colorado district attorney asked the court to reconsider the original sentence of more than a century. The move quieted widespread criticism that led to protests and over 5 million people signing a petition to reduce the sentence.
Criminal legal reform advocates and law experts told USA TODAY the case could become a turning point in the fight against mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which many of them have criticized for years for fueling mass incarceration and systemic racism, and giving prosecutors too much power over sentencing.
Experts also say mandatory minimums vary widely from state to state. Ian Farrell, associate professor at University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, said Colorado’s law is “surprisingly severe.”
If Aguilera-Mederos was found guilty in other states of the 27 charges he faced related to the crash, the mandatory minimum sentence may have been as low as a few years, he said.
Aguilera-Mederos' Case: Colorado district attorney asks court to reconsider 110-year sentence for truck driver
The history of Colorado’s mandatory minimum laws
In October, a jury found Aguilera-Mederos, 26, guilty of four counts of vehicular homicide and 23 other charges. The judge at his sentencing said Colorado's mandatory minimum sentencing laws forced him to give the minimum 110-year sentence.
Colorado’s mandatory minimums for sentencing were largely established in the 1990s as part of a tough-on-crime push and a perception that judges were giving light sentences, said Stan Garnett, a former Boulder County district attorney. Lawmakers were also concerned that sentences varied too widely depending on the judge.
But Adam Gelb, president of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan criminal justice policy organization, said research is “very clear” that mandatory minimums “exacerbate variance and widen disparities.” He added the laws were popular nationwide in the 1970s and 80s among lawmakers targeting violent offenses and drug offenses for lengthy prison terms.
“When there are terrible cases or increases in certain types of cases, lawmakers feel they need to act,” he said. “... And too often the soundbite solution has been to jack up penalties and enact mandatory minimums.”
Gelb said there is “tremendous variation” in mandatory minimum laws between states, not only on the books but also in practice with some prosecutors more likely to stack a litany of charges, triggering long mandatory minimums.
Perhaps the most well-known example of harsh mandatory minimums is Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced in 2004 to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana, the Washington Post reported. After a massive campaign by criminal justice reform advocates, Angelos became a symbol in the fight against mandatory minimum sentencing and was released in 2016 when a federal court reduced his sentence.
But most aren't as lucky as Angelos and Aguilera-Mederos. While few make headlines, Gelb said the examples of the cost of such sentences are many.
'A huge problem'
In Colorado, 416 people convicted of violent crimes faced charges with mandatory minimum sentences from 2014 to 2016, while 155 people convicted of drug crimes were given such sentences, according to a 2017 legislative report.
This is a minority of Colorado’s total prison population, Garnett said.
But Farrell said stacked charges inflating sentences is "a huge problem throughout the country with prosecutors charging extraordinary amounts of felonies arising from one incident."
Prosecutors may also overcharge defendants to pressure them into pleading guilty for a lesser charge, rather than take their case to trial, Farrell said. He said this practice leads to longer sentences and may coerce defendants to give up their rights to trial by jury.
“The prosecutor is not the person who is supposed to be responsible for deciding what are the appropriate sentences,” he said. “An enormous amount of power ends up being within the hands of the prosecutors. And prosecutors are incentivized to not think about what is the appropriate sentence but rather to try to get the maximum possible sentence.”
There is also “robust evidence” that longer prison sentences don’t improve public safety or deter people from committing the same crimes again, said Taylor Pendergrass, incoming director of advocacy and strategic alliances at the ACLU Colorado.
LaQunya Baker, assistant professor at University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, said mandatory minimums slash the efforts of criminal defense lawyers trying to show the full circumstances of an offense and humanize their defendants.
People of color are more likely to receive longer sentences because of mandatory minimums, Baker added.
A 2020 study from Boston College found Black men received sentences 20% longer than their white counterparts from 2012 to 2016. The difference can be partially explained by mandatory minimum sentences, which are brought against Black defendants at higher rates than white defendants, researchers wrote.
Calls to rethink mandatory minimums
In a letter to Aguilera-Mederos announcing his commutation, Polis called on the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to re-examine sentencing laws “so we can ensure greater consistency in sentencing to prevent future bizarre outcomes.”
Colorado state Sen. Bob Gardner said the state’s Sentencing Reform Task Force would likely start considering felony sentencing reform in 2023. The group started work on misdemeanor cases in 2021, he said.
Gardner told USA TODAY he sees “good arguments on either side” of the debate over mandatory minimums and believes the laws as important in ensuring consistency across sentences.
President Joe Biden has voiced support for ending mandatory minimums. For decades, the American Bar Association has urged states to repeal laws requiring minimum sentences. A task force convened by the Council on Criminal Justice has also called for such reforms.
Last year, New Jersey eliminated mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent offenses, and states including Oregon, Virginia and California have recently considered similar efforts.
Gelb said while he is excited about the increased attention Aguilera-Mederos’ case has brought toward mandatory minimums, it’s difficult to predict if there will be concrete changes.
“But a case like this may be the best hope for pushing the country to reevaluate,” he said.
Baker, on the other hand, isn’t too hopeful.
“People have a very short attention span and (Aguilera-Mederos’) sentence was changed really quickly,” she said. “I'm sure people are moving on and not seeing the larger picture beyond one person."
Pendergrass said he's hopeful the conversation around Aguilera-Mederos' case will push more governors to use their clemency powers to reduce inflated sentences, encourage prosecutor’s offices to stop stacking charges with mandatory minimum sentences, and lead to legislative change rolling back mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
“We should be looking to fix the root causes of this type of outcome in the first place rather than trying to cure it after the fact,” he said. “I have hope that can happen.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colorado truck driver's 110-year sentence spotlights sentencing laws