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Government Should Restore Fidelity in the Juvenile Justice System

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As a prior prosecutor working under former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, I was present for the inception of the current Direct File law and I attended and testified at the special legislative session of 1993 that dramatically changed our juvenile justice system. The current Direct File law gives DA's sole discretion in the decision of whether juveniles 14-years-old and older accused of certain crimes face charges in adult court as opposed to juvenile court. I know now that the time for reform of the Direct File statute has come.

The Direct File legislation in 1993 was well intentioned. It was also based on what we knew about chronic and violent juvenile offenders at that time. The 1993 legislation not only changed our direct file laws, but it also included the advent of a middle tier sentencing option of the Youthful Offender System. The intent was that a direct filed youth could avoid adult prison by participating in a very rigorous, structured rehabilitation program. For this reason, the 1993 legislation seemed balanced and progressive.

Over the past 18 years we have accumulated a broad base of research that tells us the brain does not fully develop until a person reaches their early twenties. We have learned from the scientific research that adolescents do not have the same capacity for impulse control or forethought as a grown adult. The U.S. Supreme Court also recognizes this: "The law has historically reflected the same assumption that children characteristically lack the capacity to exercise mature judgment and possess only an incomplete ability to understand the world around them." J.D.B. vs. North Carolina, 131 S.Ct. 2394 (2011) at 2403.

This relatively new knowledge, along with the lack of data to demonstrate that the Youthful Offender System has a positive impact upon juveniles, is what leads me to support Colorado's HB 12-1271. The time has come for juvenile direct file reform in Colorado. Brain research has come a long way since 1993 and I am proud that in 2012 we are one signature away from using this evidence and research to guide our juvenile justice system. I am asking Governor Hickenlooper to recognize the research and evidence on this issue and take the last step of signing HB 12-1271 into law.