Westword, a Denver weekly, tells the story of Alan Sudduth, a juvenile who was sentenced to seventy years in prison in 1996 for the murder of a cab driver — even though a later hearing showed that the prosecution’s case was full of holes, earning Sudduth a new trial. After Denver’s so-called 1993 Summer of Violence, prosecutors got more leeway to “direct file” charges against kids as adults, without having to hold a hearing to determine whether the defenders should be taken out of juvenile court.
Colorado’s direct-file system has been criticized by criminal defenders and youth advocates ever since — and Sudduth’s case may be a glaring example of the system’s drawbacks. The system was a response to growing concerns about crime in the 1990s, says Kim Dvorchak, chair of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Division. “What had been happening before was that when a child committed a serious crime, the DA would have to petition the juvenile court judge to waive jurisdiction and send the case to adult district court,” she says. “In the 1990s, crime went up and the judicial transfer process was perceived as cumbersome. You had to have a hearing. There were defense lawyers involved and they might get evaluations and evidence. It was like a mini-trial.” Fourteen states allow district attorneys to direct file kids as adults, something often referred to as judicial waiver. Some states have mandatory waiver laws, meaning that kids over a certain age accused of first-degree murder have to be charged in adult court, no matter what defense attorneys or prosecutors might say. Colorado has no ability to return kids to juvenile court. The majority of other states that have direct-file or mandatory waiver laws give the child an opportunity to challenge adult-court jurisdiction either at pretrial or at sentencing.