As a young prosecutor right out of law school in the early 1980’s – my mentor – a man named John Topolnicki – asked me who – in the criminal justice system has the most power? I answered – ” well – the judge of course.” Over the last 30 years I would learn over and over -it is the District Attorney – not the judge, the jury, or least of all, the defense lawyer, who wields absolute power.
A new law – recently passed in Colorado removes much of that power – the power to charge Colorado juveniles as adults.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law House Bill 1271, which reverses an expansion of power that lawmakers granted to prosecutors after the gang shootings in 1993, known in Denver as the “Summer of Violence.” I prosecuted one of the first such homicides – a young teacher from Western Colorado had just moved to Denver and was searching for her car when she was murdered for her purse by a young hoodlum.
Here is an excerpt from a recent Denver Post Article that recalls those days:
“The recent gang-style shooting of Denver Broncos player Darrent Williams has brought a renewed focus on Denver’s gangs, raising worries that the city could be facing another year like 1993. That year, gang warfare spread to parts of the community normally insulated from it, drawing attention from politicians and prompting the media to call it the “summer of violence.” The tragedies that year included a young teacher killed in a robbery and a 6-year-old shot in the head.”
Since that summer – laws known as “direct file” rules – that, at one time – had some basis in common sense – became the political tool of ambitious elected DA’s. Very few states permit direct filing of juveniles as adults without judicial review – review by a judge.
The bills’ sponsors maintained, correctly, that prosecutors have been charging too many juveniles as adults for mid-level felonies and using the threat of filing serious charges to plea bargain.
Juveniles cornered in this way would either plea bargain – or were left with lifelong felony records that make it difficult to get jobs or housing later.
The Change In The Law – Limits on Discretion
The new law limits prosecutors’ power to charge youths as adults to only the most serious felonies, like murder and violent sex crimes. It also requires judges to review a district attorney’s decision to charge a juvenile as an adult.
While many prosecutors and the Colorado Attorney General John Suthers opposed the bill, – it passed through the good will and intelligence of our elected officials.
Hickenlooper signed the bill into law Friday, the 13th of May. It is now the law in Colorado.