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

Juvenile crime rates have plummeted, just as Colorado District Attorneys’ Council’s Tom Raynes and Attorney General John Suthers say. But there is little evidence that direct file discourages youth crime, just as there is little evidence that the threat of the death penalty discourages adults from committing heinous crimes. None of the direct filed offenders interviewed for this story cite direct file as a deterrent for their teenage minds. In truth, many had no idea Colorado sent kids to adult prison.

Advocates like Dvorchak argue that a teenager has little ability to understand the legal consequences of his or her crimes. That instead of rehabilitation, we focus on punishment, which is a mixed message. “Let’s restart the conversation,” Dvorchak says. “It’s not a question of whether two years is not enough. It is a question of why seven years is not enough.” She also questions why, if we believe in a juvenile justice system, we have a legal loophole that contradicts its very premise.

Ritter’s Juvenile Clemency Board and task force was created in 2007 to address questions like this—but nearly five years later, they’ve done little. Governor Romer granted the last pardon in 1987 to William James Bresnahan, who killed his parents on a summer camping trip in Summit County in 1964 as a 16-year-old. After serving 10 years in adult prison, he became a doctor and moved to California.

For other examples of what a juvenile criminal can become and that the notion of rehabilitation of a child has merit, there’s Richard Mijares and Gary Flakes, who are both out of prison, employed, and taking college courses. At 40 and 31, respectively, they are like time capsules. They went in as teens and emerged as men. They missed prom, turning 21, registering to vote, getting married. Many would argue they lost the right to experience those things because of their crimes. Regardless, like so many other prisoners, they eventually left prison—and the world they re-entered is sometimes more daunting than the one they left.

Mijares arrived at his halfway house in February 17, 2000, hopeful that he’d assimilate back into society. He had a little cash saved from selling belt buckles and jewelry he made; his sisters helped out too. He finished his GED inside and even picked up a pair of associate degrees. The few times he was lucky enough to get a job interview, they ended badly. He started to give a rehearsed spiel about his crime that he’d worked on with his therapist and parole officer. Soon, he found out that background checks revealed what he had been charged with—first-degree murder—not what he was convicted of, second-degree murder. That seemed wrong, but he’d work with it. It was what he had to do. One night, he came back to the halfway house and just broke down. Send me back, he told his parole officer. He didn’t know how to live outside of prison anymore.

He finally got a break when a call-center employee went to his boss and vouched for him. He started at $7 per hour and worked whatever shift they’d give him. Six weeks later, they promoted him to a computer job. Two-and-a-half years later, he’s the director of his department. The way he sees it, he may never leave. “Where else would I go?” Mijares asks. He’s got a truck, two houses, two cats, a dog, and he’s taking classes at Metro State, trying to get his B.A. Mainly, he wants to blend in; even his short-sleeved shirt hides the scar on his arm from the prison attack.

Mijares, like Flakes, is now working on direct file reform. Maybe this year will be the year something changes. Maybe not. Regardless, it’s likely that the Legislature will have to deal with Colorado’s direct file policy this session—again. “I don’t know what year is the right year for this to happen,” Maureen Cain says. “You just keep doing it.”

Which is why Flakes is standing at the 5K’s start line, beginning, again. Most of all, he worries about his legacy. “If someone harms your family, you’ve been created to have that anger and do something about it,” Flakes says. “I understand that. I don’t want them to feel anything different than they want.... They got every right—I mean, a right. The legacy that I’m going to leave is going to have to be—and it is going to be—a good one. It’s going to far outweigh this right now, what I’m known for.”

Natasha Gardner is a 5280 senior editor. Email her at [email protected].