DENVER (AP) – A sweeping change to how Colorado juveniles are charged as adults headed to the governor’s desk Thursday after two days of a spirited debate that divided Senators from both parties.
The bill would reverse an expansion of power that lawmakers granted to prosecutors after highly publicized gang shootings in 1993, known in Denver as the “Summer of Violence.”
The debate touches on one of the most uncomfortable questions: How harsh should the punishment be for juveniles who commit serious crimes?
Republican Sen. Steve King, an opponent of the bill, showed lawmakers an enlarged surveillance photo of a youth holding a gun to the head of a kneeling victim in a store. He argued that prosecutors only charge children as adults for the most serious crimes.
“That 1 percent is the picture that I showed,” King said.
Supporters of the bill contend that prosecutors are charging too many juveniles as adults for mid-level felonies and using the threat of filing serious charges to plea bargain. The result, supporters say, is that juveniles are left with lifelong felony records that make it difficult later to get jobs or housing.
The bill would limit prosecutors’ power to charge youths as adults to only the most serious felonies, like murder and violent sex crimes. It would also require judges to review a district attorney’s decision to charge a juvenile as an adult.
Colorado is among a handful of states where prosecutors can charge juveniles as adults without judicial review under a process known as “direct file.” But opponents of the bill point out that more than two dozen states have mandatory transfers to adult court for some crimes.
The debate Thursday included a series of time-outs where Senators talked in private about whether to allow an amendment to the bill. Among other things, the amendment would place the burden on defendants to be transferred to juvenile court from adult court, and it would direct judges to review charging decisions in the context of whether prosecutors abused their discretion. The amendment failed by one vote and the bill later passed 22-13.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office would not say whether he plans to sign the legislation. “We will review the bill when we receive it,” said spokesman Eric Brown.
In 2008, former Gov. Bill Ritter, who previously served as Denver district attorney, vetoed a bill that would have allowed judges to review prosecutors’ adult charging decisions in juvenile cases.
Many prosecutors and Attorney General John Suthers oppose this year’s bill, disputing the charge that district attorneys are abusing their power.
But Sen. Rollie Heath, a Democrat, read a letter from Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, who said he supports “the bill without reservation.”
Sen. Ted Harvey, a Republican who voted no on the bill, said he was torn about his decision.
“This bill is probably the hardest bill any of us will be voting on in our tenure down here,” he said. “I’ve been here for 10 years, 11 years, and this is one that I have been back and forth on both sides of this bill.”
By IVAN MORENO, Associated Press
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