DENVER (AP) – Colorado lawmakers who want to reduce prosecutors’ authority to charge children as adults moved forward with legislation Friday that addresses the sometimes touchy issue of how to treat youth in the criminal justice system.
During debate, one lawmaker recounted the death of a childhood friend in a drive-by shooting during Denver’s so-called “Summer of Violence” in 1993 – the impetus for expanding prosecutors’ power to charge children as adults for more types of crimes.
Prosecutors could only charge juveniles as adults for the most serious crimes, like murder, before the change nearly two decades ago. Now some legislators worry that too many youths are being charged as adults for lower-level felonies, such as burglary. Critics say prosecutors have too much power because such decisions are not reviewable by a judge. Lawmakers want judges to review those decisions.
Colorado and a handful of states allow prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults without judicial review, according to lawmakers.
But supporters of the current system say prosecutors are best equipped to make charging decisions and that there’s no evidence district attorneys are abusing their power.
Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon, who wanted to amend the proposal to keep more of the prosecutors’ charging discretion, said he is “passionate about this issue” because a 17-year-old classmate was killed in a drive-by shooting by a gang member in the summer of 1993.
“Wearing the wrong colors was a symbol that you were affiliated with a certain gang, and he was wearing the wrong colors that day,” he said. “He was walking down the street innocently.”
The Colorado House gave preliminary approval to a bill scaling back district attorney’s authority, but rejected Pabon’s amendment to maintain prosecutors’ ability to charge juveniles as adults without judicial review for Class 1 and 2 felonies, which include murder, rape, and aggravated robbery. The bill faces another vote before heading to the Senate.
Supporters of the legislation argue that the decision to charge youth as adults should not be taken lightly because it directs juveniles to adult jails and prisons with longer sentences and leaves them with lifelong felony records.
“This is a decision that fundamentally alters a person’s legal status. It takes an individual who for every other purpose under the law is a child,” said Democratic Rep. Claire Levy, a supporter.
Republican Rep. Mark Waller, one of the lawmakers opposing the bill, said the bill is a difficult one to consider.
“Out of all the bills I’ve heard in my time in the Legislature, I think none have caused me more sleepless nights, more angst, more worry,” he said. “I struggle with this bill because I understand that emotions are incredibly high on both sides of this debate.”
LINK: House Bill 1271
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)