When a juvenile is accused of a crime in Colorado and found incompetent to stand trial, they can spend years in the criminal justice system, unable to resolve their case until they’re deemed competent or age out.
House Bill 1012 aims to change that, establishing time limits for how long an incompetent juvenile can remain in the criminal justice system before charges have to be dismissed.
If passed by the state legislature, the bill would give courts six months to determine whether a juvenile cannot be restored to competency to stand trial, and drop the charges for misdemeanor offenses, with the time limit increasing based on the crime’s severity.
“You could literally have stolen a candy bar at 14, be found incompetent to proceed and then you’re caught up in the legal system and you can’t get out,” said bill sponsor Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder. “This fixes that. Nobody wants these kids, especially for low-level stuff, to be stuck in the criminal justice system.”
Under the current system, Amabile said incompetent juveniles suspected of committing the highest felonies can remain in the criminal justice system for up to five years or until they turn 21, but there is no specific limit for low-level offenses.
The bill would establish the following maximum time limits: six months for a misdemeanor, misdemeanor drug offense, petty offense or traffic offense; one year for a class 4, 5 or 6 felony; two years for a class 2 or 3 felony; and, five years for a class 1 felony.
Once the time limit is reached and charges are dismissed, courts would also have the power to implement a treatment plan for the juvenile if they determine it to be necessary.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 12-1 in support of the bill on Tuesday afternoon, advancing it to the House Appropriations Committee for further consideration.
“As a former juvenile public defender, I know firsthand the stress, the disruption, the unnecessary delay that these proceedings can cause for everyone involved,” said Katie Hecker of the Colorado Office of the Child's Representative while testifying in support of the bill. “The bill shortens the amount of time that proceedings can go on. This provides closure for everyone involved.”
James Karbach, who is with the Office of the State Public Defender, said the current system often leads to juveniles staying in the competency system longer than adults.
The Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, Office of Civil and Forensic Mental Health and the Colorado Department of Human Services also spoke in support of the bill.
In addition to the time limits, the bill would clarify that courts can reevaluate a juvenile for competency, allow juveniles to choose their own evaluator and waive a juvenile’s claim of confidentiality or privilege when they are found incompetent to allow the court to determine issues related to the juvenile’s competency, restoration and treatment plan.
“What this does more than anything else is provide clarity,” said Tim Lane of the Colorado District Attorneys Council. “Clarity in a statute where there wasn’t clarity before. Clarity in a process so that we can go forward to make sure that these cases are handled responsibly and appropriately.”
No one testified in opposition to the bill.
The bill’s only “no” vote came from Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose. Luck didn’t comment on her opposition, but questioned the waiver of privilege portion of the bill, asking Karbach if his office is concerned about it.
He said the office does “not love” that part of the bill but added that it aligns with adult court competency cases.
“This bill fixes some parts of our juvenile competency system,” Amabile said in defense of the bill. “There’s a lot more work to do, but it is important to do this now and move this process forward to make it more fair. These are kids ... and the best thing we can do for them is get them into care and out of the criminal justice system.”