Report recommends reform of state's 'direct file' system
Trying teens as adults increases the likelihood that they will re-offend, says a new report from the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition (CJDC). Re-Directing Justice: The Consequences of Prosecuting Youth as Adults and the Need to Restore Judicial Oversight, released earlier this month, provides a history of Colorado's juvenile justice reform efforts and presents some important findings on the use of "direct file" in the state.
"Direct file" refers to the sole discretion given to prosecutors to file charges against juveniles in adult criminal court, rather than in the juvenile system. Once a juvenile's case is filed in adult court, there are few options for it to be remanded to juvenile court, as the juveniles cannot appeal or contest the prosecutors' decision. Juveniles tried in adult court face radically different circumstances, losing access to all of the protections that the state put in place for children in the juvenile system in recognition of the differences between children and adults.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds have been eligible for direct file if charged with the most serious felonies, such as first-degree murder, since Colorado's juvenile justice system was established in 1903. But in 1993, in both the regular and a special legislative session, Colorado lawmakers dramatically expanded eligibility for direct file, removing the requirement that the teen had to have a prior juvenile record, expanding the eligible offenses and lowering the minimum age to 14 for all eligible offenses. Today, according to the report, "Colorado is only one of four states with complete prosecutorial discretion to file the case in adult criminal court and no judicial review for remand to juvenile court."
An analysis by the CJDC of the more than 1,800 juvenile cases filed in adult court from 1999 to 2009 found that: 85 percent of the direct-file cases involved middle- to low-level felonies. Furthermore, 22 percent of cases were dismissed and 25 percent resulted in probation or deferred sentences. These figures call into question whether this tool is truly used for the "worst of the worst."
The report has several other important findings:
- Direct file has affected thousands of youths, and disproportionately impacts black and Hispanic youths.
- The majority of youths impacted by direct file are not the most serious offenders.
- Convicting youth as adults has long-term consequences that erect barriers to their re-integration to society.
Based on these findings, the report recommends that power be restored to judges to decide whether a youth should be tried in adult criminal court, or if direct-file laws are maintained, that lawmakers narrow eligibility for it. Overall, the recommendations emphasize the importance of continuing to recognize, as we do throughout other areas of society, the consequential differences between children and adults.
Two bills in the 2012 legislative session are based on the report's recommendations, and the Bell supports both of them:
HB12-1139 – makes juvenile detention facilities the default placement for juveniles awaiting trial in adult court. This bill passed the legislature and has been signed by the governor.
HB12-1271 – would narrow the eligibility for direct file and insert some checks into the system. District attorneys would retain the power to direct file the cases of juveniles 16 and older charged with certain crimes, but judges would review that decision. The bill has passed the House and is awaiting action by the full Senate. Click here to read the Bell's testimony on HB12-1271.
– Lizzy Stephan
Article posted on March 28, 2012