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Trust Judges with Juvenile Placements

by Mike Krause and Marc Levin

Juvenile offenders in Colorado are usually tried as juveniles in juvenile courts. But a small portion are transferred to adult courts for trial, as either recognition of the more serious nature of their crimes or due to risk factors suggesting the adult system is better equipped to handle these juveniles.

This divided system is not up for debate — all agree that the criminal justice system is sometimes the best place for a juvenile offender. But Right on Crime’s research indicates that judges are the best public officials to make the determination of which system should handle a juvenile offender, as opposed to the current system where a prosecutor can directly transfer a juvenile to the adult system under the direct-file system.

Judges, as neutral arbiters, are entrusted with many serious decisions in courtrooms across Colorado. Judges are deemed logical, objective overseers of trial determinations in almost every other stage of a criminal case — and juvenile placement should be included in the ambit of judicial trust.

Recently collected data shows that youths who have been transferred to the adult system without judicial consideration are not the most serious offenders. In fact, a 2012 Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition study found more youths have been sent to adult court through direct file for drugs and other nonviolent crimes than for homicide. Further, some 80 percent of youths transferred without a judge’s oversight had never been placed in a state youth lockup prior to their transfer.

The divided system — with some juveniles eligible for placement in the adult system — works best when adult lockups are reserved for the most serious juvenile offenders, truly the most heinous cases. Further, given the myriad of ways the juvenile justice system can rehabilitate juvenile offenders and turn them from a life of crime, youths should generally be allowed to exhaust their options in the juvenile justice system before being placed in the adult system.

This is because the juvenile justice system is uniquely adapted to the various needs and risk factors involved in a juvenile delinquent’s life. From education to specific treatment and family-oriented interventions aimed at youths, the juvenile justice system has been more successful at rehabilitating juvenile offenders in Colorado and every other state in the nation. And that is the goal in every justice system interaction with a juvenile — rehabilitation to produce a law-abiding citizen, rather than a career criminal. Moreover, Bureau of Justice Statistics data has found youths are far more likely to be sexually and physically abused when placed in adult prisons.

In addition, under Colorado’s blended sentencing scheme, serious juvenile offenders sentenced in juvenile courts can begin their term in a juvenile facility and be transferred to adult prisons to carry out the rest of their sentence. This permits serious juvenile offenders to still receive long terms to fit their criminal actions while not being shut out of the age-appropriate system created for them. Pending legislation this session would allow even longer blended sentences.

When Colorado lawmakers created the direct-file option, the expectation was that it would be used primarily for homicide cases. However, less serious offenders and juveniles who never spent time in a juvenile facility being sent to the adult system indicate the current system has gone too far and, like other governmental functions, needs appropriate checks and balances.

Accordingly, we believe that Colorado’s judges should be given the ability to determine the most appropriate placement for a juvenile offender. Judges are trusted to make similarly serious determinations in Colorado’s justice system, and this trust should be extended to juvenile placement.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post, April 6, 2012.