Lawmakers deal with Ritter, DAs to reform system that charges youth as adults

Draft legislation that would limit the power of Colorado district attorneys to charge 14- and 15-year-olds as adults was watered down this week by sponsor Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, who said that, although the bill enjoys the support of a majority of lawmakers, former D.A. now-Governor Bill Ritter, a strong proponent of D.A. discretion in these matters, said he would veto the original version of the bill.

Gov. Bill Ritter (wiki commons)

Colorado is one of roughly 20 states to embrace the so-called direct file system, which gives the power to district attorneys to decide whether or not to charge juveniles as adults. Most states leave theat decision to so-called transfer court hearings before judges who review in the process of making their decision factors such as the family history and mental health of the suspect. As the Colorado Independent has reported, the system in the state meant to govern young people tried as adults is willy nilly and underfunded, creating in its wake unsafe conditions and a mess of potential rights violations.

Levy told the Colorado Independent that although the language of her bill has not been finalized, it is likely to be changed significantly.

Originally the bill would have removed 14- and 15-year-olds from direct file provisions and would have allowed some adult convictions of juveniles to be converted to juvenile convictions. Those provisions are gone in the new language.

“We didn’t think we could get the votes on the bill [to override a veto]. The governor said he would support a bill that required DA’s to adhere to some criteria for transfer,” said Levy, adding that the new version would compel DAs to file paperwork that says they considered some of the mitigating factors currently reviewed in transfer case hearings. They would also limit direct files cases of 14- and 15-year-olds to first and second degree murder and sex offenses and provide a 14-day waiting period in which “assessments can be done and the juvenile will stay in youth detention.”

Levy said that courts will not be able to review the DA’s decisions on direct files but said at least the new DA files would “indicate the factors that supported their decisions.”

The new provisions would allow certain “class-two” offenders into the state’s successful Youthful Offender System (YOS), it eliminates a provision that would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds who completed the program to petition the courts after three years to convert their felony conviction to a juvenile offense.

Mary Ellen Johnson, child advocate and Executive Director of the Pendulum Foundation, said that removing the felony conversion clause from the bill would concern her.

House Minority Leader Mike May, Colorado Springs, who is co-sponsoring the legislation, told the Colorado Independent last week that the Governor was unhappy with the legislation said yesterday that most of the parties involved in discussions are on board.

“We have come to agreement… The DAs have got on board. I don’t know if they are too excited about it, but they are on board. The bill will bring transparency to the process.”

Ted Tow, executive director of the Colorado District Attorney Council, agreed with May.

“Basically there are some are a handful of elements of the direct file protocol and structure that we are willing to come to the table with some suggested reforms or changes.”

“Basically providing for some transparency in the process by statutorily listing the criteria for making direct file decisions” is key he said.

Colorado State Public Defender Doug Wilson said that juveniles undergoing a transfer hearing conducted by a judge have their maturity level evaluated according to factors such as home conditions and psychological state, factors absent in direct file determinations. “There is just a great contrast between the two [systems],” he said.

Michael J. Vallejos, Denver head for the Colorado Public Defender’s office, agreed that the differences between a transfer case and a direct file case were stark. He explained that mitigating factors such as mental illness, home environment and likelihood of rehabilitation are thoroughly evaluated during a judicial review. Unfotrtunately, he said, he almost couldn’t remember the last time he was involved in a transfer case. ”They don’t do very many transfer hearings in the state, everything is direct file.”

Levy has been working with key Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly for weeks putting together the draft legislation. She said even in its new form, the bill represented an important step in the right direction. “It’s not what we wanted, but its actually pretty good. It will make a difference.”

At least one Republican who was supporting the former legislation is still making up her mind on whether to support the new version. BJ Nikkel feels it’s important that 14- and 15-year-olds not be subject to direct file and that young people graduating from the YOS program should have the chance to convert their sentences.

“It is important that we delineate the juvenile justice system different from the criminal system. It is important to give them some hope.”

During a direct file debate sponsored by the Pendulum Foundation and Stop Direct, Adam’s County DA Don Quick told the Colorado Independent that he would be willing to support legislation similar to that now being proposed by the Governor’s office as a compromise. He said he would support legislation that asked him to look at possible mental illness. He said he would only be interested in evaluations conducted by licensed psychiatric experts, not by insistence by parents or through anecdotal evidence.

He also said that he did not like the idea of extending the time period in filing the cases because it could back up case loads. Kim Dvorchak, defense attorney and child advocate, said the best place for that decision to be made on adult charges is not with “adversarial prosecutor but with an impartial judge.”

“It is a pretty good step forward,” said co-sponsor May. It is not everything that some of us wanted but it is more than they wanted to give. So it works.”

House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, told the Colorado Independent Tuesday that even if the governor decided to veto the bill, it appeared now to have a veto proof majority.

Stake holders have said language should be completed later this week.

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