Judge can disregard deadlines, send young offender to prison | courts

Colorado’s second-highest court determined last month that an Arapahoe County judge, prosecutors and corrections officials could ignore the deadlines in state law and still have the ability to send a youthful offender to prison.

The state’s Youthful Offender System allows defendants who were at least 18 at the time of their criminal offense but younger than 21 at sentencing to serve time at a rehabilitative facility in Pueblo, instead of a traditional prison. However, the law allows defendants to be “returned” to the trial court and potentially receive prison time if they cannot complete the terms of their YOS sentence.

If the Department of Corrections decides to return defendants, the agency needs to transfer them to a county jail within 35 days and notify the district attorney. A trial judge then has 126 days after the district attorney is notified to review the sentence.

In the case of Yusuf Mawiye Omar, the government honored neither of those deadlines. But a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals upheld the ability of a judge to revoke Omar’s five-year YOS sentence and impose a 15-year prison term, reasoning that the timeline was not mandatory.

“It is undisputed that Omar failed to comply with the YOS’s terms and conditions — meaning that he must ultimately be returned to the district court for resentancing,” wrote Judge David H. Yun in the Feb. 9 opinions.

In March 2019, Omar pleaded guilty to an aggravated robbery he committed when he was 18. District Court Judge Ryan J. Stuart sentenced him to 15 years in the Department of Corrections, but the sentence would be suspended if Omar successfully completed five years in the YOS.

Within months of his arrival in Pueblo, Omar racked up multiple disciplinary infractions, including his involvement in an assault on another inmate. A group of YOS personnel conducted a hearing in June 2019 and determined he violated the terms of his placement. On July 30, a YOS warden sent a letter of revocation to the district attorney’s office for Arapahoe County. The corrections department’s deputy director signed the letter on Aug. 12.

Omar came before Stuart again on Dec. 19, where he made two arguments. First, the corrections department did not transfer him to the county jail within 35 days of the decision to revoke his YOS sentence. Second, based on the July 30 notification of the prosecution, Stuart had not acted within 126 days to review Omar’s sentence.

Stuart believed the hearing fell within the 126-day window — by four days — using Aug. 12 as the starting date. But he dismissed the request to revoke Omar’s sentence for a different reason: only the executive director of the corrections department can certify the revocation decision, not his deputy.

Two months later, the government tried again to get Omar’s prison sentence reinstated. The executive director signed the new revocation decision on Feb. 4. Once again, the department did not transfer Omar to jail within 35 days, and instead held him in a different building on the Pueblo campus.

Your morning rundown of the latest news from Colorado Springs and around the country overnight and the stories to follow throughout the day delivered to your inbox each evening.

success! Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

By early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had begun to affect court operations and Omar did not appear before Stuart until July. Omar renewed his argument that Stuart had no jurisdiction to hear the department’s request because it was now beyond the 126-day deadline.

“In this case, I didn’t follow that,” Stuart admitted at an Aug. 7 hearings. “We attempted to bring Mr. Omar to court. Mr. Omar was not brought to court within the 126 days. He also wasn’t transported to the county jail within the 35 days that the statute requires.”

However, Stuart believes he still retains the authority to send Omar to prison.

“Here, we’re dealing with a situation that the courts haven’t dealt with in over a hundred years. And that is a global pandemic,” he said. “I can’t find that because it was impossible to hold a hearing within 126 days — physically impossible — that the court now lost jurisdiction in all of these cases in which a 126-day timeframe was running.”

Stuart imposed the 15-year prison sentence on Omar and declined to issue sanctions for breaching the legal deadlines.

On appeal, Omar reiterated that Stuart lacked jurisdiction to hear the case beyond the prescribed window, and the delay in processing the department’s request caused him to miss YOS programming while he awaited action from the judge.

“Mr. Omar was only twenty and twenty-one years old during the revocation process, a time in which his brain was still developing,” wrote public defender Katherine C. Steefel. “The delays prevented him from maximizing his rehabilitative potential, and as research indicates, incarceration for young people is particularly harmful.”

The appellate panel disagreed. There was no “negative language” in the law stating judges cannot act on revocation requests beyond the deadline, Yun noted. Further, Omar received credit for the time he spent in YOS, so the delay “did not injure” his rights.

Even though the Court of Appeals agreed to Stuart, the prosecution and the corrections department violated the legal timeline, the consequence was Stuart’s ability to dismiss the revocation request. In this instance, the panel found it acceptable for Stuart to decline to do so.

The case is People v. Omar.

Scroll to Top