Youth advocates to propose referendum shortening adult sentences for juveniles

Advocates for youth offenders in Colorado are looking to bolster coming legislation that would raise the age where juveniles could be tried as adults by also bringing out a referendum asking voters to consider release programs for juveniles convicted of adult crimes. The proposed program would allow convicted youth to enter half-way house programs once they turn 30.

State Rep. Clair Levy, D-Boulder, told the Colorado Independent that, although she has yet to read the referendum, she supported the idea behind it.

“The whole premise of having a distinction between juveniles and adults is that juveniles are still maturing and you don’t want to saddle them with a mistake for the rest of their lives,” Levy said. “When a juvenile commits an offense, they’re a juvenile. It’s a legal fiction that they are an adult. In [trying them as an adult] you’re taking away the opportunity for them to show that they matured and learned and can have a second chance.”

The Pendulum Foundation, a youth advocacy group, has authored the referendum and Executive Director Marry Ellen Johnson told the Independent that “there are initial indications” the proposal will enjoy bipartisan support in the legislature. Referendums are proposed statutes drafted and amended by lawmakers but then sent to voters to consider at the ballot box.

In light of legislation this session aiming to lift D.A. “direct file” power to try 14- and 15-year-olds, Pendulum thought adult sentencing of youth tried over the last decade should also be revisited.

“We think that if direct file is overturned that those who are affected by direct file should have a second chance. We also don’t believe that kids should serve decades or life in an adult prison,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the referendum would mean that juveniles sentenced as adults would have to successfully complete all Department of Corrections programs to qualify for leniency. There would be considerable incentive to do so, she said, because those who do, would be allowed to re-enter the community through halfway house-style facilities, where they would stay for weeks or months or years, depending on assessments.

“They just can’t walk out of prison. We think this would be a fair trade off for these guys.”

Johnson said the referendum will face resistance in the capitol. “I’m not real sure it will pass the House or the Senate. It’ll be iffy.”

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.

Below is the full text of the referendum that child advocates would like to see brought forward by a sponsor:

Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Colorado:

SECTION 1. 19-2-102, Colorado Revised Statutes, is amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SUBSECTION to read:

19-2-102. Legislative declaration. (3) It is the intent of the people of this state that the juvenile justice system shall at all times seek to balance the preservation of public safety with the interests of rehabilitating juvenile offenders and reducing rates of recidivism among juvenile offenders. The people of this state find and declare that public safety is enhanced and the public interest is best served through the administration of corrections programs designed to assist juvenile offenders in overcoming the factors that contributed to their criminal behavior and in developing the skills that will enable them to become productive members of society.

SECTION 2. 18-1.3-301 (2) (b) (III), Colorado Revised Statutes, is amended, and the said 18-1.3-301 (2) (b) is further amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SUB-PARAGRAPH, to read:

18-1.3-301. Authority to place offenders in community corrections programs. (2) (b) (III). Any offender who has displayed acceptable institutional behavior one hundred eighty days prior to such offender’s parole eligibility date.

(IV). Any offender sentenced pursuant to section 19-2-517 (3) (a) (I), C.R.S., or section 19-2-518 (1) (d) (I), C.R.S., and who has displayed acceptable institutional behavior, upon attaining thirty years of age.

SECTION 3. Effective Date. The effective date of this act shall be January 1, 2011.

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