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Colorado takes step in the right direction for juvenile justice

April 21, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Here is a step in the right direction: Colorado's governor has just signed a bill into law that would limit the ability of prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults.

Under the new law, a prosecutor could charge a minor as an adult only for the most serious offenses, such as murder or a violent sex crime. It raises the age from 14 to 16 that a minor can be charged as an adult for a serious crime. A district judge would also have to review a prosecutor's decision to charge a juvenile as an adult. Proponents of the law change said too many kids who had never before been charged were being tried as adults for low or mid-level felonies.

According to the Associated Press, prosecutors have been able to charge juveniles as adults without judicial review. The process is called "direct file" and only a few states have it. There are a number of states where kids 14 or younger are charged as adults for serious crimes. One of the youngest kids on trial as an adult for murder was only 11.

I've been a longstanding opponent of trying kids as adults, even for serious offenses. Kids simply aren't adults. The most recent science shows that the brain isn't fully developed until the mid-20s. The part of the brain that controls their ability to think before they act is not fully developed. Kids are more impulsive and less likely to consider the consequences of their actions.

That science explains a phenomenon I've noticed all too often over the years. Kids can lose a friend in a car accident and be on Facebook the next day talking about all the good times they had partying with their dead friend, without having it click that their friend is probably dead because he drove drunk or was texting while driving or had neglected to fasten his seatbelt and was thrown from the car and killed instantly. Kids know intellectually that this kind of behavior is risky, but they don't believe it will happen to them and are far too often likely to continue risky behavior even after it killed a friend.

The same science applies to a kid who commits a crime, even a horrific one. Kids don't think, do something terrible on impulse, and can't understand afterwards why they did it. But young people who commit crimes are also a lot less likely to commit them again, particularly if they get into the right kind of rehabilitation program, which is best provided by the juvenile justice system. Just as a 25-year-old is less likely to drive after a night of wild partying and to think before he acts, so is a 25-year-old reformed juvenile delinquent. I also oppose harsh penalties such as lifelong registries for adolescents who commit serious offenses, for much the same reason. Kids aren't adults and they can be better reformed without harsh punishment, either direct or collateral.

I applaud Colorado's governor for signing this law, which was not without opposition within his state.


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