Hard Case: Ritter unlikely to support new rules on trying youth as adults

Gov. Bill Ritter doesn’t think it’s a good idea to limit district attorney authority to determine whether to try suspects in juvenile or criminal court. Justice system analysts and Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Colorado, however, say the state’s harsh “direct file” system isn’t supported by adequate resources, leading juvenile suspects tried as adults to languish in ill-suited adult prisons.

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Colorado Springs, confirmed to the Colorado Independent last week that he had discussed possible legislation with Ritter that would move up the age where youth could be “direct filed” on as adults. May said Ritter, a former prosecutor, wasn’t happy with the proposal.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder,  and Sen. Linda Newell plan to sponsor legislation along with potential Republican sponsors May and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud.

May and Lundberg are waiting to see the text of the legislation before committing to it. May also seemed to be generally taking the temperature around the idea in running it past Ritter last week.

As the Colorado Independent has been reporting over the last few weeks, juveniles charged as adults in the state and awaiting trial as inmates in adult prisons enter a system that fails to educate them, provide them equal access to services like mental health care or even to ensure they are housed according to strict safety guidelines. People involved in the system admit to not knowing how many young people charged as adults are presently being held by the state and in which prisons. Colorado sheriffs frankly admitted to the Independent that their adult facilities are inappropriate for managing juvenile detention.

Levy’s so-far unwritten legislation would require the cases of juveniles 12- to 15-years-old to pass through a judicial review before they could be tried in criminal court. Current statute holds that district attorneys in the state are afforded the power to make those determination fro suspects 14 years and up.

Advocacy groups are determined to return the law to where it stood in 1993, when “impartial justices” not prosecutors made these decisions. Advocates note that in judicial review cases mitigating factors are taken into account– factors that include mental illness, home conditions, and pattern of living, all of which are absent from the age- and crime-based analysis that shapes direct file.

District attorneys here argue direct file has helped curtail juvenile crime rates and feeds the state’s successful Youth Offender System, which teaches job skills, provides equivalent high school graduation courses and ends in shortened sentences.

 Don Quick, D.A. for the 17th judicial district told a room of about 150 people at a recent event sponsored by child advocates that the state should retain the direct file system because it reduced crime. He argued that D.A.s try to determine the proper range of penalties in all cases and that choosing to try a child as an adult was part of this process.

Earlier this week the Pendulum Foundation, a group that works for the rights of youth prisoners, told the Colorado Independent that May and Democratic Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll both spoke with Ritter, who said he would likely veto any bill that would restrict D.A. power to direct file.

May told the Independent only that he took the proposal to Ritter and that Ritter “wasn’t happy with the idea.”

Megan Catle, spokesperson for the Governor’s office, said she couldn’t comment on “legislation that isn’t written or hasn’t been sent to our office.”

Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director at Pendulum said her group had been working with Newell and Levy on the bill. She said supporters of the proposal were working to shore up veto proof majorities in the House and Senate.

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