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Re-Directing Justice: The Consequences of Prosecuting Youth as Adults and the Need to Restore Judicial Oversight

NCJ Number
Kim Dvorchak; Karina Swenson
Date Published
102 pages
This report examines the impact that Colorado's direct file law has on youths tried as adults.
The direct-file law has been used to try thousands of Colorado youth as adults, inappropriately incarcerate them in adult jails and prisons, and mark them with lifelong felony convictions. A large body of research shows that prosecuting children as adults is counterproductive to community safety because youth are less likely to be rehabilitated and become productive members of society. Results show that prosecutors are more often using direct filing for mid-level felony cases than for only the most serious cases, as previously thought. Only 15 percent of direct file cases are homicides, and only 5 percent of cases are charged as first degree murder. The majority of direct filed youth never have their case reviewed by a judge or jury. Ninety-five percent of cases are plea-bargained. Only 28 percent of direct file cases are convicted of the highest offense charged, and 22 percent of cases are dismissed. Direct file disproportionately affects children of color. Eighty-two percent of admissions to the Youthful Offender System in 2009-2010 were black and Hispanic youth. In contrast, 75 percent of dismissed cases were white youth. Recommendations include: restore authority over whether a youth should be tried in criminal court to juvenile court judges to ensure constitutional due process and better outcomes for kids and families; if direct file laws are maintained, raise the age limit to 16 and over, restrict criteria to the most serious cases and provide juveniles an opportunity to request transfer back to juvenile court; create a separate sentencing scheme for juveniles in adult court; keep youth out of adult jails; provide opportunities for youth convicted as adults to earn the ability to seal criminal convictions; improve data collection; and provide comprehensive reports on the impact, cost and effectiveness of prosecuting children as adults. Tables, figures, endnotes, and appendix