04/24/2012 12:41 pm ET

Gov. Hickenlooper Signs Direct File Reform Bill Into Law

While all eyes were on pot smokers celebrating their unofficial holiday on 4/20 in Colorado, Gov. Hickenlooper signed a bill into law that diminishes prosecutorial ability to charge juveniles as adults through the direct file system.

House Bill 1271 adds a few extra steps in Colorado's juvenile justice system to give offenders under the age of 18 who are direct filed a chance to appeal that decision to a district judge who will have the final say whether to try them as adults.

Read the full text of HB-1271 here.

The Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition's executive director Kim Dvorchak, who supported the bill, said in the Denver Post that the law had "restored due process for youth to have judicial review before being tried as an adult."

Though the bill passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, it was highly contested by prosecutors and law enforcement officials who argue that the bill causes damage in an effort to fix what's not broken.

"(The bill) takes something that works very well in this state, that is not being abused, replaces it with something that endangers public safety, costs more, causes litigation," Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said in a report by KDVR.

In an editorial titled "Too Soon to Overhaul Juvenile Justice Again," the Denver Post agreed with Morrissey and Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and argued that the number of juveniles who had been direct-filed had dropped since 2009.

However a letter addressed to Gov. Hickenlooper from Wade Buchanan, the president of the Bell Policy Center, echoed some claims by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition in urging him to sign the bill:

Colorado and many other states made it easier to transfer juveniles to the adult system in the 1980s and 1990s, but reviews of the research on the outcomes of these changes have found that transferring juveniles to the adult system is counterproductive to preventing and reducing violence. Transfer policies have generally resulted in increased numbers of juveniles being arrested for subsequent crimes, including violent crimes.[1] These policies have demonstrated no proven deterrent effect and have caused sharp increases in recidivism. The overwhelming majority of these studies show that the adult criminal justice system is ill-equipped to meet the needs of youth offenders.[2]

The law will restrict direct file decisions to cases of murder, kidnapping and violent assaults for 16- and 17-year-old defendants, but district attorneys won't be able to file adult charges on low-level felonies and many mid-level crimes.

"This is about as close as I've come to a veto without vetoing," Hickenlooper said in a statement. "At the end, I feel very comfortable with the decision. I think especially in a split legislature that if a bill works its way through both sides, that's a powerful statement."

Reactions To Direct File Reform