Mark Hurlbert: Trying children as adults
With the recent tragedy in Burlington, Colorado’s juvenile justice system has come under attention. When a 12 year old kills his mother and father and seriously wounds two of his brothers, it is necessarily asked: “How can the criminal justice system handle such a heinous crime from such a young person?” The only harder question for a district attorney may be whether to seek the death penalty.
So, to answer such a question, we need to first see what happens in the juvenile justice system. When a person who is over the age of 10, but under the age of 18 is charged with a crime, they are not charged like an adult. Rather it is considered a delinquency proceeding and a juvenile convicted of a crime in the juvenile system – no matter how small – is considered a juvenile delinquent. At sentencing a juvenile can be sentenced to up to three years out of home in the Division of Youth Corrections, essentially a juvenile prison or be placed on probation. There can be various terms can conditions, including drug or alcohol classes, restitution and to stay in school. Being adjudicated a juvenile means the case can be wiped off their record after the juvenile turns 18 if they are off of probation.
For 99 percent of the juveniles who commit crimes, this is perfectly fine. But what if a juvenile commits a particularly heinous crime? In that case, the district attorney can make the decision to charge the juvenile as an adult. There are 10 criteria a DA must consider before charging a juvenile as an adult, including whether a gun was involved, the seriousness of the offense and whether there is a prior record. If a juvenile is charged as an adult, one of two things can happen to them. They can go to the Division of Youth Corrections until they turn 18, and then go off to adult prison, or they can go to what is called the Youth Offender System or YOS. Very few of the juveniles charged as adults end up in adult prison without first being given a chance at YOS. And those are generally serving life in prison for first-degree murder. YOS is a program that provides a controlled, regimented and secure environment which ensures public safety. Programs in YOS include a boot camp, job training and even a high school. The success rate for YOS is incredible: a 97 percent success rate over one year and 79 percent over three years. Both YOS and the ability of district attorneys to file on a juvenile as an adult were a result of the Summer of Violence in Denver in the 1990s. It seems to have worked. Violent crimes committed among juveniles have been going down ever since. And instances of filing on juveniles as an adult have been going steadily down. This is a tool district attorneys across the state have used very sparingly.
Here in the Fifth Judicial District, I have used the ability to file on a juvenile as an adult on only five juveniles in the eight years I have been district attorney. The last time juveniles were filed on as an adult was in Summit County. In that case, three juveniles and one adult did an armed robbery of a convenience store. Although the crime was aggravated, what made the decision to file on the three juveniles as adults was that we had good information that they were the vanguard in bringing a violent El Salvadoran gang into the county. We needed to show that the district attorney’s office and law enforcement were going to take a hard line on gangs coming into the community. Also, we did not feel that the juveniles were completely unsalvageable. Therefore, when the juveniles pleaded, we recommended and the judge granted a sentence to YOS. As for the aftermath, we have seen a sharp decline in gang-related graffiti and activity. The community is safer. It is still too early to see if the juveniles are going to be affected as they are still in YOS.
So, what will happen in Burlington? Since I do not know all the facts and have not talked to the district attorney up there, I would only be speculating, but it is certain that the eyes of Colorado and the nation will be on any decision and our juvenile justice system.
Mark Hurlbert is the district attorney for the Fifth Judicial District, which includes Summit County.
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