Justice for All: Reforming Colorado's Juvenile Direct File Provision

Nearly 20 years ago Colorado expanded prosecutorial power to select youth accused of certain crimes for filing in the adult criminal justice system, called direct file. Today, numerous studies show that prosecuting youth as adults increases a youth's likelihood to re-offend and decreases community safety. Also, evidence-based programs and treatment shown to curb juvenile offending simply are not available in adult court. Colorado is one of many states taking a second look at laws that fell behind current research and considering implementation of best practices that retain more youth in the juvenile court system. House Bill 1271 improves the system of selecting youth for adult prosecution by providing youth due process; the right to a hearing and judicial review over the decision to remove them from juvenile court.

In "Re-Directing Justice: The Prosecution of Youth as Adults and the Need for Judicial Oversight," the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition studied over 1800 cases from 1999 to 2010. The overwhelming majority of youth filed in adult court, 75 percent, are accused of middle-level felony offenses. High profile homicide or sexual assault crimes are the rare exception. Even then, only 8 out of 84 first degree murder cases were convicted as charged. Nearly every case, 95%, is resolved by plea bargain. This means the prosecutor chooses the charges, the court system, and the sentence. This denies youth fundamental fairness and an individualized hearing on their rehabilitative potential.

Colorado is one of only four states in the nation that gives prosecutors discretion to hand-pick individual youth for adult court without any judicial oversight. In contrast, over 30 states give youth the opportunity for a hearing to ask a judge to review the filing of their case in adult court, even in homicide cases. Direct file also impacts juvenile court, where children and families are squeezed by the options of taking a plea bargain or getting "direct filed" and risking life-long felony convictions and prison.

Recent amendments to Colorado's direct file statute have helped reduce the number of youth in adult court but they do not provide due process and are not a check on government power. The precipitous drop in cases strongly suggests prosecutors were abusing their discretion. If prosecutors are not abusing their discretion today they should have no hesitation to make their case in court. The truth is, even with the decline in direct file, problems continue: the number of non-violent cases equal the number of homicide cases, most youth plead to middle-level felony offenses, and the majority of youth are sentenced to a department of corrections. House Bill 1271 is not a radical proposal but a reasonable bi-partisan approach to juvenile justice that provides long overdue checks and balances that improve outcomes for families and public safety.