HB 1271 Calls For More Oversight In Direct File Cases, Heads To Gov. Hickenlooper For Signing

For juveniles, "direct file" is a phrase that means that in the eyes of the law you've become an adult overnight and may go to an adult prison.

Nearly 20 years after Colorado's state legislature gave this sweeping discretionary power to its district attorneys and took the process out of the hands of judges, the state is sending new limitations of that power to Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk for consideration.

If signed into law, HB 1271 will restrict district attorneys' ability to use "direct file" for felonies like murder and violent sex offenses. The bill also calls for a preliminary hearing to identify probable cause for a direct file offense, and allows juveniles to petition the adult court to transfer their case back to juvenile court in a move called a "reverse-transfer" hearing.

(Scroll down to read HB 1271)

An amendment brought by Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, to place the burden of proof on the juvenile offender's attorney to contest the direct file was voted down after a lengthy debate.

In a 2007 Frontline interview with Hon. Karen Ashby, a presiding judge in Denver's juvenile court, Ashby described the way the transfers used to work before the original direct file law took place in 1993:

If a district attorney believed that child's case should be held in adult court, they would make a request of the court, there would be a comprehensive hearing, the juvenile would be represented by an attorney, the prosecutor would be present at the hearing and the court would hear a wide array of information about why the child should be transferred to criminal court or why a child should remain in juvenile court.

After becoming law, prosecutors would have to plead their case about trying juveniles as adults before a judge, who would also hear arguments from defense attorneys.

According to a study by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, Colorado is just one of four states that gave "complete prosecutorial discretion to file the case in adult criminal court and no judicial review for remand to juvenile court." That study found that between 1999 and 2005, 85 percent of direct file cases involved middle to low-level felonies, and called into question whether the direct file system was being used sparingly.

Read HB 1271: