Support building to lessen DA power to try Colorado youth as adults

DENVER– A bipartisan team of Colorado lawmakers is seeking to raise the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults in the state. Rep. Clair Levy, D-Boulder, is introducing legislation this week to make 16-year-old suspects the youngest that D.A.s can try as adults. As it stands now, 14- and 15-year olds can be “direct-filed” by D.A.s Levy’s bill would move decisions in those cases out of the hands of prosecutors and into the hands of judges.

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Levy told the Colorado Independent that she’s currently working with legislators in both parties to hammer out the final language of a bill. the bill would change a statute written in 1993 that removed judges from the process. The co-sponsor for the bill is House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker.

Lawmakers and analysts acknowledge that the state’s current direct-file system is plagued by problems. Mostly, the state simply doesn’t have the money to properly track, house and treat young people awaiting trial as adults. Fourteen-year-olds find themselves placed into adult facilities and shunted into solitary confinement. They wait sometimes for months or even years to be brought to trial and in that time enjoy limited access to services like education and psychological treatment, services guaranteed to them by law.

Levy explained that her bill would change the current law to broaden the range of offenses juveniles convicted as adults could commit and still be allowed to take part in Colorado’s successful Youthful Offender System. Her bill would open that system to sexual offender and second-degree felony suspects. It would also allow 16- and 17-year-olds who complete the program to petition the court to downgrade their convictions from a felonies.

The Youth Offender System allows juveniles convicted as adults to serve time in youth facilities and earn time off of their sentences, which corrections authorities told the Colorado Independent are highly successful inducements to reform. The Youth Offender System includes access to mental health care, GED and job training programs.

“Not having a felony on your record has obvious benefits in helping to reduce recidivism,” Levy said. A felony record significantly hobbles future employment prospects.

The current “direct file” system was put into place in 1993, fueled by rising juvenile crime rates. The Colorado legislature and then-Gov. Roy Romer removed judicial review and placed authority with D.A.s to levy adult charges. The new law removed a host of considerations that normally went into charging juveniles as adults– mitigating factors such as mental illness and home-lives, for example.

“I’ve always thought the [direct file] system was a bad policy and not consistent with what we know about juvenile capability to rehabilitate, mature, and grow into productive members of our society,” Levy said.

She said direct file conflicts with constitutionally mandated due process.

“Colorado is out of the mainstream and on the wrong end of the trend.”

Colorado is one of only 15 states in the country that allows for prosecutors to decide whether to try juveniles as adults, according to a report compiled by the National Center for Juvenile Justice for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Levy tried to pass a similar bill in 2008 but she said that only one Republican voted for it. She said it was the possibility of bi-partisan support that moved her to once again bring the legislation forward.

“When Mike May told me he was willing to help pass something, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.”

She said she expected Sens. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, and Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, would sponsor the legislation in the Senate.

 

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