A measure that would require a court hearing before prosecuting youth defendants as adults inspired emotional debate on the Senate floor Wednesday, drawing a clear line between lawmakers who have placed their faith in the honorable discretion of district attorneys, and those who believe safeguards need to be in place to avoid the potential for abuse.
The bipartisan House Bill 1271, sponsored by Reps. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, and Beth McCann, D-Denver, and Sens. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Tim Neville, R-Littleton, would reform the so-called “direct file” system in Colorado, which allows prosecutors to transfer juvenile offenders to adult criminal court without judicial review. The measure would allow courts to have a hearing before prosecuting juveniles as adults.
The legislation cleared the Senate on Wednesday on an initial voice vote.
Proponents argue that prosecuting juveniles as adults often does more damage than good, noting that human brains continue developing into a person’s 20s. They agree that in some horrendous circumstances, juveniles should be tried as adults, but that a judicial review should be applied to make that critical decision.
“Nothing in this bill keeps the kid from being prosecuted to the full extent of the law, even life in prison,” argued Giron. “This bill merely provides an opportunity for a second look at a child’s case.”
A very emotional Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, raised concerns over prosecutors not being able to separate themselves from the crimes they are prosecuting, which could lead to overzealous prosecutions of juveniles as adults. She recalled having sat with students, parents, teachers and administrators following the Columbine Massacre, in which 12 students and one teacher were killed in 1999 at Columbine High School.
“I sat at the crime scene of Columbine; I sat with the parents in the gymnasium; I knew which kids were not coming out,” Jahn said, nearly crying. “I watched the horrible, horrible stress and drama that our DA had to go through when he sat with those parents.”
“How do you remove yourself from that to also make the charge and to determine how that kid will be before the court process?” she asked. “How do you do that? I certainly couldn’t.”
But an equally impassioned Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, a police officer, was beside himself with frustration that sponsors were attempting to take discretion away from prosecutors who have never proven to abuse the direct file system. He pointed out that lawmakers enacted the system after the 1993 “Summer of Violence” in Denver, in which youth offenders involved in gang activities caused numerous violent crimes across the city.
“Here we are dealing with legislation that would destroy the direct file system that deals with our most dangerous juvenile predators,” he spoke to his Senate colleagues. “Are we doing this because we have a better system in mind… Or are we saying, ‘Let’s take this apart because we don’t like it?’ And in the process, we manage to insult every elected DA in the state.”
Critics of the bill point out that reform efforts by the Legislature in 2010 forced district attorneys to consider a number of factors when deciding to direct file a case, and to consult with defense attorneys first. Since then, the number of direct-file cases has dropped by 60 percent.
“Six-tenths of 1 percent,” King pounded the podium as he spoke. “That’s how much it’s used.”
HB 1271 has already cleared the House and is likely headed to Gov. John Hickenlooper for his signature in the near future.