DENVER (CBS4) – A state lawmaker has introduced a controversial bill that takes a charging decision out of the hands of prosecutors.
It was the summer of 1993 and fear gripped the city of Denver as gang shootings escalated. Under mounting pressure the legislature met in an emergency session, and in five days, overhauled the juvenile justice system.
“The philosophy of the day was that nothing works on kids. We just need to lock them up to protect society,” juvenile justice advocate Kim Dvorchak said.
Convinced judges were going easy on children, the legislature changed the law to give district attorneys sole discretion on whether to charge a juvenile as an adult — known as “direct file.” Twenty years later critics say prosecutors are abusing that discretion.
“By saying, ‘If you don’t agree to this plea deal, then we will charge you as an adult,” said Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland.
Nikkel has introduced a bill to put the decision back in the hands of judges. She reluctantly admitted her motivation is personal. Ten years ago she says prosecutors used the threat of direct file as a hammer to get her 16-year-old son to plea to charges in a crime she says he wasn’t guilty of committing.
“You’re solely at the discretion of government attorneys who are threatening to take away your son,” Nikkel said.
“All we’re asking for is judicial review, due process; let both sides put evidence on the table,” Dvorchak said.
Adams County District Attorney Don Quick says that responsibility drove prosecutors to fight for a youth prison system — a place where children charged as adults aren’t just warehoused, but are able to go to school, get treatment, and in the long run, stay clean.
“I keep hearing we have all this authority and power. And really, when I’m in my office or at home at night staring at the ceiling, I’m thinking of my responsibility,” Quick said.
He says intervention is more important than who makes the decision. Right now he says most children in the adult system are getting intervention and not re-offending.
“It doesn’t help the kids to have to them go into a program that doesn’t give them the best chance to change,” Quick said.
Quick says if a child comes out and re-offends, prosecutors have to answer for it.
“We make these decisions all time. I think the defense bar doesn’t like that we make this particular decision,” Quick said. “I’m okay with that, but I want to know why. I want to know which decisions they believe that we made that aren’t based on the facts or what’s based best for the kids.”
For Nikkel, that’s easy.
“If this can happen to me, it can really happen to anybody,” Nikkel said.
The bill gets its first hearing on Thursday.