DENVER — A panel of state lawmakers gave the go-ahead Monday night to the most controversial criminal justice bill of the legislative session, despite strong opposition from several of the state’s top prosecutors who don’t want to lose their ability to file the cases of teenage offenders straight into the adult prison system.
House Bill 1271, which would strip prosecutors of having sole discretion over whether to charge, try and sentence teenage offenders as adults and put the decision in the hands of a judge instead, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday night after several hours of testimony.
The vote was 5-2.
In a last stand of sorts, prosecutors spent several hours arguing in favor of keeping the current system in place and fighting against the notion that prosecutors were abusing the system.
The number of direct-file cases dropped by 60 percent in just a year after lawmakers passed legislation in 2010 that has since forced district attorneys to consider various factors when deciding whether or not to direct file a case and to consult with defense attorneys first.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, as he did when the bill was heard by a House committee, chided lawmakers for supporting legislation that “takes something that works very well in this state, that is not being abused, replaces it with something that endangers public safety, costs more, causes litigation.
“It hurts kids,” Morrissey continued. “And it also hurts victims of crime.”
But supporters of H.B. 1271 argued that district attorneys often use the threat of direct-file as leverage to convince suspects to accept plea deals; and that the current system is still failing those teenagers at a vulnerable age and making it less likely for them to leave the system and become productive citizens.
Some of them described personal experiences, including Sue Powers of Grand Junction, who spoke about her grandson, Thomas English.
“He should have had a hearing,” Powers told lawmakers. “Instead he took a 24-year plea deal. There should have been some kind of input. He was 14.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.
Last week, the House approved the measure on a 45-20, veto-proof vote.