State Senate gives initial approval to juvenile justice reform bill

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DENVER — The Colorado State Senate on Wednesday gave initial approval to one of the most controversial bills of the legislative session: a proposal to strip Colorado district attorneys of their ability to “direct file” the cases of juvenile offenders into the adult prison system.

House Bill 1271, which has bipartisan sponsorship, easily passed the full GOP-controlled House last month on a 45-20 vote and now moves one step closer to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk.

A final Senate vote could come as early as Thursday.

If signed into law by Gov. Hickenlooper, the measure would limit a district attorney’s ability to use “direct file” to the most serious violent offenses, like murder and rape, and put all other cases into the hands of a judge, who could still rule to charge a juvenile as an adult.

“This is about the process,” said Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who supports the bill. “The question we’re deciding is: who decides? All this bill is doing is [giving] an opportunity for a hearing, for two sides to present competing facts in front of a judge.

“If anybody every deserved as much or perhaps more due process in the hands of government, [it’s juveniles],” Carroll continued. “It’s just a hearing, and it’s something that’s essential to our entire justice system.”

Supporters of H.B.1271 have pointed to a recent study by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition based on a review of 3,000 cases between 1993 and 2011, showing that direct file has disproportionately affected 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.

“Some of the decisions made in 1993 were overreacting to the circumstances,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster. “Direct File puts children in adult jails which do not have separate areas for juveniles, they do not provide educational services.

“We need to treat children differently than adults,” Hudak continued. “The victim may be an adult, the crime may be adult-like, but the perpetrator is a person who has not been fully formed yet. They are juveniles!”

But, district attorneys and members of law enforcement have fought hard to kill the bill, to convince lawmakers that recent changes to the system, first put in place following the 1993 “Summer of Violence”, are limiting its use.

The number of direct-file cases indeed 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.

“The system is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, a former police officer, on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “But taking us back to 1993 is a mistake.”

King argued that most offenders between the ages of 14-17 who are “direct filed” against wind up in the Youth Offender System; and, he said, district attorneys carefully use their discretion when warranted to charge violent offenders who commit “adult-like” crimes as adults.

“It’s a difficult issue,” King said. “They feel like their integrity is being challenged.”

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