Juveniles prosecuted as adults: Colorado's hardline approach not working, report says

Nearly twenty years after Denver's much-hyped "Summer of Violence" triggered a harsher approach to juvenile offenders statewide, lawmakers are wrestling with two reform bills -- and a new report contends that Colorado's system for moving juvenile cases into adult court isn't working and doesn't provide adequate protection for teen defendants.

"Re-Directing Justice," a report released today by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, takes a hard look at the statistics on juveniles in adult criminal court since a 1993 special legislative session widened the net for such prosecutions. Colorado is one of only four states in which district attorneys have enormous discretion to prosecute offenders in the fourteen-to-seventeen age range in adult court without a judicial hearing on the issue, a process known as "direct file."

The CJCD report indicates that while direct file was intended to be used in only the most serious cases, it's often employed in mid-range felony cases against teens who have no prior criminal record -- and disproportionately in cases involving defendants of color. And in the vast majority of those cases, the juveniles never get their case heard by a judge and jury; a whopping 95 percent of direct-file cases result in plea bargains.

But whether the resulting time in adult prison is a "bargain" or not is debatable -- as in the case of last month's cover story about Tara Perry, a sixteen-year-old first-time offender who took a plea deal and was sentenced to 66 years for her role in a crime spree in which she didn't kill or injure anyone.

The report calls for more judicial oversight of such decisions and more stringent efforts to keep juveniles out of adult detention facilities. Not so coincidentally, this legislative session features two bills targeting the direct-file issue. One, HB 12-1139, would place further restrictions on the ability of law enforcement to place youths into adult jails while awaiting trial. The other, HB 12-1271, limits the range of crimes that can be direct filed into adult court to the most serious violent offenses, such as murder and rape.

Have we learned enough about the shortcomings of the throw-away-the-key approach to juvenile crime since the early 1990s? After crunching the numbers on more than 3,000 direct-file cases between 1993 and 2011, the report's authors conclude that the approach has been less than effective: "Contrary to what lawmakers intended, the direct-file law has done little to deter juvenile crime," they write. "A large body of research shows that prosecuting children as adults makes it less likely they'll be rehabilitated and become productive members of society. The departure from juvenile treatment is damaging kids, creating redundancies in state services, and jeopardizing community safety."

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Video: Tara Perry on boyfriend Randy Miller's rampage and suicide."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast