Rant & Rave: Fires and HB 1271

April 6 2012, 10:55 AM

Rant: Fires.

One lazy summer afternoon, as a young girl, I stared out our dining room window at a horror show (at least for a kid). In the open field next to our house, huge flames were devouring the prairie grasses and moving fast. My mom and I immediately called 911. It's OK, they said. It's just a controlled burn.

Residents affected by the Lower North Fork Fire were told similar things on March 26, just hours before a fire burned 27 homes and more than 4,000 acres. The first emergency call from concerned residents came at 12:43 p.m. The evacuation call? It came four hours later—if it came at all. More than 275 homes did not receive an evacuation call because addresses were incorrectly or inconsistently entered in the databases used to warn people of an emergency. 

Controlled fires are a necessary and important part of forest ecology and management, as senior editor Julie Dugdale found out in this piece. But, given Colorado's history of destructive fires (read senior staff writer Robert Sanchez's report on the Fourmile fire here), we need to continually evaluate all fire management policies. Good news: The Governor and the State Forest Service agree, and an independent panel is reviewing the prescribed burn, which occurred before the fire.  

Rave: HB 1271 passes the Senate and moves to Governor Hickenlooper's desk.

Yesterday, HB 1271, which unravels the worst aspects of a misguided 19-year-old direct file law, passed the Senate. The debate was dramatic: Senator Steve King flashed a gruesome image of a teenager pointing a gun at a woman's head. Several recesses happened. A last-minute amendment was offered. In the end, the Senate passed the much-debated bill (22 to 13). 

It made me proud to be a Colorado voter. The state's current direct file policy dates back to 1993 and the so-called "Summer of Violence." During that time, a series of violent, horrific crimes committed by youth paralyzed the city. In truth, the summer really wasn't that violent, but legislators nonetheless met in a 10-day special session to address youth violence. One of the changes made during that session was “direct file,” which allows prosecutors to file charges against kids between the ages of 14 to 17 directly in adult courts without going before a judge.

In our December issue, I chronicled this subject in "Direct Fail" to see how direct file has morphed into something where DAs have unchecked power over charging and, because so many of the cases are plea-bargained, ultimately sentencing youth. (The story is a finalist for a 2012 National Magazine Award in the public interest category.) To date, I've spent five years following this issue. Almost every year, small improvements have been made to the system. But, like many people following child welfare issues, I was surprised in 2008 when then-Governor Bill Ritter vetoed a bill similar to HB 1271. Today, we're in the similar position: Governor Hickenlooper must decide whether or not to support this bipartisan bill in the coming days. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he will sign the bill into law. It’s time to improve Colorado's juvenile justice system.