The Consequences of Prosecuting Youth as Adults
and the Need to Restore Judicial Oversight
A Special Report by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition
Direct File is a law that gives prosecutors unilateral discretion to file charges against children in adult criminal court.
Contrary to popular belief that direct file is only used on the most serious cases, prosecutors are more often direct filing mid-level felony cases. Only 15% of direct file cases are homicides, and only 5% of cases are charged as first degree murder (only 8 of 84 first-degree murder charges resulted in a first-degree murder conviction).
The vast majority of direct filed youth never have their case reviewed by a judge or jury. 95% of cases are plea-bargained. Only 28% of direct file cases are convicted of the highest offense charged, and 22% of cases are dismissed.
Direct file disproportionately affects children of color. 82% of admissions to the Youthful Offender System in 2009-2010 were black and Hispanic youth. In contrast, 75% of dismissed cases were white youth.
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.
- 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. Provide comprehensive reports on the impact, cost and effectiveness of prosecuting children as adults.