For the past eight months, the Weld County Drug Task Force, in cooperation with the North Colorado Drug Task Force, has been investigating the sale of drugs and firearms to undercover police officers. After his arrest on April 13, the individual in question, who was armed with a 9 mm pistol at the time of his arrest and had gang- and drug-related paraphernalia at his home in Greeley, was charged with five felony counts. Among the charges: possession of a dangerous weapon, distribution of a controlled substance, conspiracy to distribute and manufacture a controlled substance, and most surprisingly, possession of a handgun by a juvenile.
The person charged in these crimes is 15 years old and will be tried as an adult. Should the youth be found guilty on all counts, he will face enhanced sentencing. At least two of the charges are Extraordinary Risk Crimes, which allow for an increase in the maximum sentencing for a particular felony charge. In Colorado, most drug-related charges range between a Class 2 and Class 4 felony (a Class 1 felony is the most serious, with Class 6 being the least serious felony charge). Class 2 felonies carry sentencing ranges between eight and 24 years, Class 3 felonies between four and 12 years, and Class 4 felonies between two and six years. Add to that increased sentencing for Extraordinary Risk Crimes, and the 15-year-old, regardless of concurrent or consecutive sentencing, could potentially be facing many years in prison.
This trial will face controversy. Colorado is among 45 states that have made it simpler since 1992 to charge certain youth offenders as adults, leading to a doubling of the number of juveniles in adult prisons. Colorado, along with 13 other states, also gives prosecutors the ability to charge children, starting at age 14, with crimes that could lead to life sentences. Currently, 45 people in Colorado prisons face sentences of life without parole for crimes they committed while under age 18.
One of the biggest concerns is that youths in adult prisons are in much greater risk of bodily harm than they would be if confined in a juvenile detention center. According to studies, the suicide rate for youths in adult prisons is five times greater than that of the general population, and eight times greater than the suicide rate in juvenile detention centers. Similarly, 47 percent of youths in adult prisons are likely to be violently assaulted, including at the hands of prison staff, compared to 37 percent of juvenile detention center inmates. According to "Juveniles In Adult Prisons and Jails," a monograph released by the U.S. Department of Justice, "Sexual assault was five times more likely in prison, beatings by staff nearly twice as likely, and attacks with weapons were almost 50 percent more common in adult facilities. Clearly, safely housing juveniles in adult facilities and protecting younger inmates from predatory, older inmates are important issues for correctional administrators."
Unfortunately, youth offenders are committing more dangerous crimes. From 1985 to 1997, the percent of youths admitted to adult prison who had committed a violent crime increased from 52 percent to 61 percent, while those charged with drug crimes increased from 2 percent to 11 percent.
Treating all youth offenders as juveniles is probably not the answer to Colorado's - or the country's - youth offender problems, but treating all juvenile offenders as adults doesn't solve the problems either. "I want to be tough on crime," Colorado State Rep. Lynn Hefley told the Denver Post. "But I also want us to be smart on crime and use our heads."