Several Colorado teenagers have been prosecuted in adult criminal court and swept into prison under questionable circumstances by a combination of tough sentencing laws and Colorado district attorneys who wield some of the broadest powers in the nation to prosecute juveniles, reports the Denver Post. In the first of a four-part series, the newspaper says Colorado is among 14 states where prosecutors can charge juveniles with adult crimes that could lead to life in prison with no chance of parole. With 45 people now locked away forever for crimes committed when they were younger than 18, Colorado ranks 11th in the nation for the rate at which life sentences are imposed on juveniles. The process that put them away has struck a nerve with judges, jurors, lawyers, and legislators who believe the adult system has mishandled some juveniles’ cases.
During the past three decades, Colorado has eroded long-standing legal protections for juveniles and cut treatment options while adopting harsher penalties. A Denver Post investigation found that prosecutors filed 1,244 cases that resulted in juvenile convictions in adult courts since 1998; 44 cases involved offenders who were 14 at the time of their crimes, the earliest they can be directly charged as adults. Fewer than 3 percent involved homicide. Flawed investigations and questionable defense work have compounded legal problems for teens in life-without-parole cases. Among juveniles sentenced to life since 1998, 60 percent went to prison for felony murder, compared with 24 percent of adult cases. Felony murder allows courts to hold someone responsible if a person died during certain felonies even if there was no intent to kill or that person’s actions didn’t directly cause the death. A growing body of research indicates teens often are confused by the court system and perhaps not competent to stand trial in adult court.