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Juvenile justice reform bill clears big test

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DENVER -- Lawmakers Thursday heard from juvenile justice advocates and prosecutors, divided over legislation aimed at protecting youth offenders from entering the criminal justice system as adults.

And, after several hours of testimony, the House Judiciary Committee sided with the juvenile justice advocates, passing a bill to scale back the discretion that can be used by district attorneys on a 9-2 vote.

The hearing came on the heels of a new report that concludes Colorado's "Direct File" system, which allows district attorneys to prosecute offenders between the ages of 14-17 in adult court without a judicial hearing on the issue, is grossly overused and failing to protect teenagers who have often had no prior offenses or experience in the juvenile system.

That report, issued by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition based on a review of 3,000 cases between 1993 and 2011, shows that direct file is disproportionately affecting teenagers of color and that nearly all of the cases -- a whopping 95 percent -- lead to plea bargains before the case ever goes before a judge.

Terrance Roberts, now a community activist working with at-risk youth, testified Thursday in favor of the legislation and spoke about his own experience after being booked into the Denver County Jail as a 17-year-old in 1994, after being arrested as a suspect in a shooting.

"I was in jail with adults, with hardened criminals," Roberts told FOX31 Denver. "It was a shock, it was really different for me. It was violent. There were stabbings. There were people getting beat."

Roberts' story underscores the report's conclusion that "trying youth as adults hasn't made Colorado safer, but actually increases the likelihood that a teenager will re-offend in the future."

"I think it probably made me a worse person," Roberts said. "It made me very angry at the system for having me locked up like that for a crime I didn't even commit. I stayed a gang member and I actually became worse. And it put extra trauma on me."

"We really are taking them a fragile state of development and putting them into this harsh environment, which research tells us, makes them more likely to commit violent crimes in the future," said Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition.

"They become friends with adult criminals, they learn criminal behavior, and they're more likely to be sexually assaulted in an adult prison."

House Bill 1271, sponsored by Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, and Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, would limit the range of crimes that can be direct filed into adult court to the most serious violent offenses, like murder and rape.

"This bill will put the ability to charge a youth as an adult back in the hands of neutral judges," Nikkel said.

Colorado is one of just four states where prosecutors, who generally oppose H.B. 1271, have the discretion to file juvenile cases directly into the adult criminal system.

A host of prosecutors also came to the Capitol and pleaded with lawmakers to reject the bill and preserve a juvenile justice system that, in their view, is working well.

"I hate to see this system that has worked so well be dismantled," said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. "The notion that we're an outlier in terms of harshness is simply not realistic."

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrisey, whose office used direct file 17 times last year, also testified against the bill, arguing that prosecutors don't carelessly overuse direct file and that the option saves the state millions of dollars when cases result in plea bargains and not lengthy trials in court.

"It's a hard thing to do. It's a hard decision for us to make," Morrisey said. "I believe and stand by the 17 direct files we made last year.

"We take this responsibility very seriously. We put a lot of time into this; we put a lot of effort into this; and nobody in my jurisdiction gets prosecuted as an adult unless it's been run by me."

In 2010, a similar bill made it to Gov. Bill Ritter's desk; however, Ritter, the former Denver District Attorney, vetoed it.

After being cleared by the House Appropriations Committee, H.B. 1271 will head to the full House for a vote.