Using Colorado’s longstanding ‘direct file’ system, Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law a bill that will limit the ability of prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults. The bill, which found huge bipartisan support in the legislature, was bitterly opposed by prosecutors and police. The governor said, “This is about as close as I’ve come to a veto without vetoing … At the end, I feel very comfortable with the decision.” Hickenlooper added, “I think especially in a split legislature that if a bill works its way through both sides, that’s a powerful statement.”
Attorney General John Suthers, reflecting the attitude of the opponents of the bill said, “Gov. Roy Romer and state lawmakers established Colorado’s direct-file system in the early 1990s in response to an alarming and continuous increase in violent crime committed by juveniles …Since then, prosecutors across the state have judiciously used the system to address the most serious, violent juvenile offenders who posed serious risks to the public safety. This new law not only ignores the lessons of history, but also the benefits of the direct-file system, including Colorado’s Youthful Offender System, which has rehabilitated numerous juvenile offenders.”
However, the majority of a bipartisan legislature was for the bill. Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, held that the law had restored due process for youth to have judicial review before being tried as an adult.
The new law prevents district attorneys from using low and mid-level felonies to charge juveniles as adults. The law also increases the age of juveniles who may be charged for serious crimes from 14 to 16.
The law still allows prosecutors to charge young offenders as adults in cases of murder, violent sex offenses, kidnapping and violent assaults. The law also allows defendants the right to appeal to a district judge to decide whether they should be tried as adults or not.
Prosecutors are disappointed. Denver District Attorney, Mitch Morrissey said the law “is a misguided attempt at reform that is actually a big step backwards…” Opponents have said that the law takes power away from prosecutors in an ‘undue’ fashion and puts that power in the hands of the court.