Initiative filed to empower juvenile judges

Following a debate last week at the DU Sturm School of Law over whether District Attorneys should retain the power to file adult charges against children, StopDirectFile.org has filed an initiative that would put juvenile filing decisions back in the hands of a juvenile court judge. A hearing date for the initiative is scheduled for April 6.

Since passing in a special session of the Colorado Legislature during 1993’s “Summer of Violence,” the decision to try children as young as 14 has been left exclusively to District Attorneys. Proponents of the proposed initiative say that violates the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers and is unfair to juvenile defendants.

There are currently hundreds of young men and women serving decades — even life sentences — in Colorado prisons, according to Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director at Pendulum Juvenile Justice.

“There are no checks and balances and no hearing before a judge.” Johnson said. The problem, she says, is really one of impartiality in the judicial system. “District Attorneys are not impartial judges and, as elected officials they may very well have a political interest in prosecuting kids as adults.”

The notion that an elected official such as a District Attorney has a political interest in using their power is one to which Adams County District Attorney Don Quick takes great exception. In his debate against long-time defense attorney Kim Dvorchak, Quick flatly denied any political motives behind his power to direct file youth. “I do get offended when I’m told that, not only am I not making the right decisions, but I’m doing it because I’m racist or I’m doing it for political gain. That’s outside the boundary of being questioned.”

But a growing coalition of grassroots advocates are questioning whether a system based on a District Attorney’s power to direct file is not a conflict of interest for an elected official. According to a poll conducted in November by state research and campaign firm Ridder Braden, Colorado taxpayers say “No.” Slightly less than two thirds of Coloradans feel that the decision to file adult charges ought to be left up to a judge.

Johnson agrees: “Our system is supposed to be based on the rule of law. The bottom line is that we need an impartial person charged with protecting the public and the rehabilitation of juveniles to make decisions that will affect kids for the rest of their lives.”

DAs have routinely challenged efforts to overturn direct file legislatively and will likely mount strong opposition to an initiative.