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Prosecuting Juveniles as Adults

Opponents of trying juveniles as adults say judges, not prosecutors, should be responsible for deciding how to prosecute children.
The Colorado-based Pendulum Foundation is bolstered by a recent poll of Colorado voters that found that by a margin of nearly three to one, voters believe that judges should decide how to prosecute children.
The Ridder Braden, Inc. poll released on Nov. 6 found that more than 65 percent of Colorado voters favor giving judges the decision about how to try juveniles.
“Our system is supposed to be based on the rule of law. The bottom line is that we need an impartial person charged with protecting the public and the rehabilitation of juveniles to make decisions that will affect kids for the rest of their lives,” said Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of Pendulum Juvenile Justice.
But prosecutors say they closely examine all cases, including those involving juveniles, and argue that they have the prosecutorial tools necessary to make an appropriate filing decision.
“We exercise the discretion given to us extremely thoughtfully and carefully as indicated by the very low number of those cases charged as adults,” said Ted Tow, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council.
A bill filed last year by Sen. Brandon Shaffer of Longmont and Rep. Claire Levy of Boulder, both Democrats, would have prevented district attorneys from filing adult charges against 14- and 15-year-olds. But the legislation failed when Gov. Bill Ritter, a former prosecutor, vetoed the legislation.
The Pendulum Foundation says it will push for similar legislation again.
Prosecutors in 1993 were given the authority to determine how to prosecute children as young as 14 after a summer of gang violence.
State legislation this year signed into law by the governor expanded eligibility for sentencing to the youthful offender system to 18- and 19-year-olds. The Pendulum Foundation said the law is a step in the right direction, but said much work still needs to be done.
The youthful offender system is a rehabilitation program used instead of prison for certain crimes committed by juveniles.
In 2006, Colorado lawmakers lowered life without parole sentences for juveniles to 40 years before the possibility of parole. But the law is not retroactive, and Johnson says it also does not go far enough.
She points out that there are hundreds of young men and women serving decades and life sentences in Colorado prisons.
“There are no checks and balances and no hearing before a judge,” said Johnson. “Prosecutors generally make decisions about whether to ‘direct file’ children within 72 hours.”
Opponents of that system say there is not enough time for prosecutors to review all the facts.
“District attorneys are not impartial judges,” said Johnson. “They often have a political interest in prosecuting kids as adults.”
But Tow says prosecutors examine juvenile cases the same way they do all other cases — carefully by examining all evidence.
“How many conferences have they actually sat in to watch the DA make the decision?” Tow asks of his critics. “I would submit none.”

Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters

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