Feature

Direct Fail

Welcome to Colorado. One of seven states in the country where district attorneys can unilaterally decide when to criminally prosecute kids as adults.

December 2011

So it makes sense then, scientific sense, that during the teen years the thirst for risky behavior increases, as kids have not yet developed a mature respect for consequences. And while 17-year-olds commit more crimes than any other age, 80 percent of teen violent offenders do not go on to commit violent crimes in their 20s. In 1993, while this all may have been intuitively obvious, there was little scientific proof. And in this societal ignorance is part of the reason why juvenile offenders’ excuses for their actions often seem feeble, amateurish—juvenile. The research that proves teenagers are psychologically different from adults is so compelling that in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional for juveniles.

Where juvenile-detention programs for 17-year-olds are ostensibly rehabilitative, adult prison for 17-year-olds is punitive. “The criminal justice system is incredibly powerful,” explains Christie Donner, director of the advocacy group Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “It can pick you up out of your life and put you someplace you don’t want to be. And there’s probably no other system that has that kind of power. Child welfare can’t. Education can’t. This is an enormously powerful system.” And the adult prison system is woefully ill-equipped to receive juvenile offenders.

There is a federal law that requires “sight and sound” separation between juvenile offenders and adult inmates in jail, but it does not apply to children prosecuted as adults. In Colorado, a law requires physical separation, but this, again, doesn’t apply to direct filed youth in prison. Theoretically, a 14-year-old boy could be put in the same cell as a 50-year-old sex offender. Most Colorado jails do not have a pod for juvenile inmates (Adams County does have a makeshift juvenile unit, in a jail). And so, jail and prison officials often have avoided both situations by holding juveniles in solitary confinement.

The practice of isolating a prisoner in solitary confinement is widely regarded to be psychological abuse. (Most of Europe disavowed the practice last century.) Last October, Juan Méndez, the United Nations’ torture expert, said solitary confinement “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment during pretrial detention, indefinitely, or for a prolonged period for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”

Fourteen-year-old John Caudle spent more than a year in solitary confinement waiting for his trial to begin. When he emerged from the box, he was transformed. He was five-foot-11 and 110 pounds, with an Adam’s apple sticking out of his bony neck and a vacant stare. “He was extraordinarily frail,” Dvorchak says. “He looked like a toothpick in chains.” The jail did not provide him with mental-health services. After he was convicted, he was sent right back to solitary confinement. In theory, Caudle was put into solitary for his own protection.

Teenagers make up one percent of the jail population, but 21 percent of inmate-on-inmate substantiated sexual violence is against youth. Even the searches can feel invasive: Strip, open your mouth, raise your arms, show the space between your penis and testicles, and bend over and cough so a guard can inspect your anus. Locked up with adults, kids are also 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon. Most troubling is the estimate that teens are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities. Since 2001, two Colorado teens, 17-year-old James Stewart and 17-year-old Robert Borrego, have committed suicide in adult facilities.

Richard Mijares could have been one of those teens. Deputy sheriffs found a noose in the teen’s cell in 1988. It wasn’t the first time Mijares had tried to kill himself.

On March 24, 1988, Mijares shot his mother in the face in their Woodland Park home. They had an argument, and he went downstairs with a gun to think—to see, really, if he had the guts to shoot himself in the head. When his mother, still arguing, came down the stairs, he just pointed the gun at her and squeezed. He wrapped her corpse in a blanket, buried her some 15 miles away, and spent a week pretending she was missing for the cops. It didn’t work; he eventually confessed.

He underwent a psychological evaluation to determine his fitness to stand trial as an adult, but nothing more. He was direct filed but his case never made it to trial. He accepted a plea bargain on June 10, 1988. When the judge asked him why he was pleading guilty, Mijares just shrugged. The judge told him that until he understood his actions, he could only give Mijares the maximum sentence.

We’ll never know what a psychiatrist would have said about Mijares’ mental health when he agreed to a plea bargain. Or how Mijares’ lifetime of abuse impacted his mind on the day of the murder. Mijares says his father would beat his mother while she was pregnant with him, beat her so badly that his older sister would peek under her mom’s dress to make sure he was still in her womb. He recalls a time when he dropped a clean sock on the garage floor and was beaten. His dad drove a Volkswagen Rabbit with a very distinctive engine sound, and when Mijares heard it coming home, he hid. By the time he was 14, he was suicidal, which is around the time his mom finally kicked his father out.

Their new life was quiet, almost too quiet. Their home was so isolated that at night Mijares couldn’t see lights from another residence. His mom suffered from depression and would have little energy for him. She’d go to her nursing job before he woke up and straight to her bedroom when she got home. Mijares would waste his time fishing in the pond or shooting behind the house. Sometimes he would pick fights with her. Sometimes he’d dream about killing himself. That night in the spring of 1988, he shot her instead, ending up in prison with a “mother-killer” reputation.

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