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NEW REPORT on the Impact of the 2012 Colorado Reforms and Recommendations

Posted in 2015, Research & Policy Thursday, 12 November 2015

Witten by Sheryl Dublin, American University Law Student, CFYJ Intern

Colorado Juvenile Defender Center (CJDC) recently released Justice Redirected: The Impact of Reducing the Prosecution of Children as Adults in Colorado and the Continuing Need for Sentencing Reform. This report provides a look into the reality of Colorado’s criminal justice and juvenile justice systems since the State’s progressive juvenile and criminal reforms.  Data from April 2012 to April 2015 were collected and analyzed to determine the impacts. This special report is beyond just an update, but an elaborate capture of the progress the State has made. It also lists recommendations for the Legislature to consider in its continued commitment to youth.

Colorado’s criminal and juvenile laws, as they pertain to children, have gone through several changes throughout the last four decades.  Laws in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, expanded the number of children that could be prosecuted as adults. The age of children eligible to be tried as adults was also lowered. Most notably, in 1993, Colorado enacted a “direct-file” statute that made it substantially easier to try a child in adult court. The direct-file provision gave Colorado prosecutors the original and final authority in deciding under which jurisdiction to prosecute a child—the criminal justice system or the juvenile justice system. This prosecutorial discretion drastically increased the number of children incarcerated in adult prisons during 1994-2002 from three children to 265.

From 2008 to 2012, adamant advocacy by CJDC and other reformists prompted these statutory changes. Among the reforms, of which Colorado can proudly boast, include the removal of several crimes from direct-file eligibility; the ability of a child to request a case be returned to juvenile court; and the raise in age from 14 to 16 for direct-file eligibility. The new report details each of the relevant reforms that changed the State’s juvenile code in 2012.

CJDC was determined to study the impact of those reforms thus far. And, in addition to these statistical findings, the report also discusses some supplemental findings. The data collected from April 2012 to April 2015 in Colorado reveal twelve key findings:

1.      Fewer children are detained in adult jails while awaiting trial. Pre-trial detention has dropped 99%.

2.      Fewer children are tried as adults. The number of children prosecuted in adult court dropped from 27 in 2012 to just six in April, 2015.

3.      The gender disparity is substantial. Boys make up 98% of the children that prosecutors direct-file in adult court.

4.      The average age of children direct-file prosecuted is 17.54. The youngest child to be prosecuted since 2012 was 13 when the alleged offense was committed and 14 at the time that charges were filed.

5.      Racial disparities have not improved. From 2012 to 2013, 30% of the children direct-filed were Black and 27% were Hispanic. This is up from 2004-2008, when 16% were Black and 18% were Hispanic. The demographic has roughly been 4.4% Black and 21.2% Hispanic. (The percentage for the Hispanic ethnicity is difficult to calculate because Hispanic children are often identified as “white” without the input of the child or the child’s family.)

6.      Only 16 of the 68 Colorado counties have prosecuted children. Though the 16 counties have roughly similar populations, Adams County, Douglas County, Denver County, and El Paso County accounted for 75% of these cases.

7.      Most of the cases tried in adult court were for serious offenses: homicide, robbery, assault or kidnapping. Many reformists urge that direct-file be reserved for the most egregious cases. Prior to reforms, only 12% of the cases were for homicide. In 2012, this serious offense made up 37% of all cases.

8.      Prosecutorial discretion leads to the criminal prosecution of children at a far greater rate than that of judicial discretion. Eighty-three percent of juvenile cases tried in adult court were direct-filed, whereas, only 17% were transferred by court order, or by “judicial-transfer”.

9.      Only 23 of the 79 children tried as adults actually went to a hearing before a judicial officer. This seems to counter the idea that direct-filing will lead to lengthy hearings.

10.  Most children enter plea deals. Children are faced with the possible imposition of sentences that had been originally contemplated for adults. Sixty-five perfect of cases resulted in plea deals from 2012 to 2015. Often children plea out to avoid the possibility of long and harsh criminal sanctions.

11.  Most children convicted as adults have been incarcerated in adult facilities. Some of these facilities include the Youthful Offender Service (YOS) which provides for Department of Corrections’ inmates that are ages 14 to 25. Only eight percent of direct-filed children were sentenced to serve time in adult facilities that do not include YOS.

12.  Those children sentenced to YOS were convicted on serious offenses. Out of the 41 cases in which juveniles were sentenced to YOS, 31 were convicted of a Class 2 or Class 3 felony, 18 convicted on homicide charges, and 10 were found guilty for robbery.

In sum, Colorado has seen some impressive changes over the past three years. The State’s policies are not perfect and are still in need of reform, but the results are very promising. As the 2012 report, “Re-Directing Justice: The Consequences of Prosecuting Children as Adults and the Need for Judicial Oversight,” was very successful in influencing change, CFYJ is confident that Colorado will consider the policy recommendations offered in the new report.

Some of these recommendations include raising the age of eligibility for judicial transfer from 12 to 14; creating a uniform sentencing statute for children convicted as adults; collecting complete data for future analysis; limiting the use of the information provided during transfer hearings in future proceedings; and evaluating the facts that are to be considered at these hearings. For more information on Colorado reforms, please visit our Colorado page here.