Press Release

IACHR Conducts Visit to Colorado, United States

November 14, 2014

Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted a visit to Colorado, United States, from October 20 to 22, 2014. The delegation was led by the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child, Commissioner Rosa Maria Ortiz, accompanied by personnel of the Executive Secretary of the IACHR.  The objective of the visit was to gather information on the situation of persons under the age of 18 in contact with the adult system of criminal justice, as well as the conditions of youth in detention and incarceration facilities.

The Commission appreciates and values all the support given by State authorities, and the openness to provide free and unrestricted access to the detention facilities and to privately interview youth deprived of liberty. The delegation is particularly grateful to civil society organizations for their efforts to provide information, as well as the assistance provided for carrying out this visit.  

During the visit, the delegation was received by State authorities in Denver, Colorado, including the Public Defender of the State of Colorado, Doug Wilson; Deputy Legal Counsel of Governor John Hickenlooper, Ben Figa; Executive Director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, Tom Raynes; and Colorado State Representative Daniel Kagan. The delegation also visited with authorities and staff of the Division of Youth Corrections and the Youth Offender System facilities in Pueblo and Golden, Colorado.  Likewise, the visit included meetings with civil society organizations, as well as with the families of incarcerated youth, and formerly incarcerated young people who had been convicted in the adult criminal justice system.  Additionally, Commissioner Ortiz presented a lecture and held a public hearing on Juvenile Justice in the Americas at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law, open to the public with local media coverage.

The Commission has closely followed the situation of children in the adult criminal justice system in the United States.  In view of concerns about the prosecution, sentencing and incarceration of children as adults, and the multiple violations of their rights as a consequence thereof, the Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child has initiated visits to various states of the United States, including a visit to New York conducted in May, 2014. In that respect, the IACHR has followed the situation in Colorado with special attention, as one of the states that has recently made important legislative changes in the juvenile justice system, greatly reducing the number of children and adolescents tried in the adult criminal system, and almost completely eliminating the incarceration of juveniles in adult prisons.

There are two different ways in which children can be prosecuted as adults in Colorado. The first one is direct file, which means the prosecutor files the accusation directly in adult courts. Under the reforms, these cases are limited to children 16 years of age and above and to the most serious crimes. This has resulted in a 78% reduction of cases filed directly with the adult system over the last 5 years. Moreover, adolescents who are prosecuted in adult courts now have the possibility of reverse transfer to the juvenile justice system. Children can also be sent to adult courts through a transfer from the juvenile tribunal to the adult one. The Rappourteur has observed with concern that this law still permits children to be prosecuted as adult, as early as 12 years of age, even if applied exceptionally due to the seriousness of the particular crime.

In addition, pursuant to these reforms, all pretrial detention is served by youth under 18 years in juvenile justice facilities.  The delegation observed moreover that under the present law, those adolescents who are convicted in the adult system generally receive less severe sentences than adults. It also noted that, in general, adolescents convicted in the adult system serve their sentences in an intermediate program, within a separate prison facility for youth convicted in an adult court for offenses committed while under age 21.  Similarly, the delegation was informed of recent legislation in Colorado which guarantees legal defense for all children and adolescents from the early stage of the proceeding, in compliance with international standards.

The Commission acknowledges these significant changes made by the State of Colorado, which represent advances toward ensuring the right of children and adolescents to be tried and sentenced in a juvenile justice system; excluding them almost entirely from detention in adult prisons; implementing age-appropriate conditions during their time in detention such as academic and vocational training opportunities; building and strengthening of family and community ties, and other important means towards their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Notwithstanding this important practice, the Rapporteur was informed that the personal data on record of children and adolescents convicted by the adult court, as well as those adjudicated for delinquency by the juvenile court, are not automatically expunged upon reaching adult age or when they have served their sentence. This has severe consequences for them, such as difficulties in obtaining employment, university scholarships, and access to housing by means of public benefits or leasing.  In that regard, the delegation was also troubled to note that prior adjudication in the juvenile court may cause the trial of an adolescent to be transferred to an adult court, and that both conviction and juvenile adjudication may give rise to the deportation of children and adolescents who are not US citizens, as well as other serious implications in their immigration status.

The Rapporteur has expressed special concern regarding practices such as solitary confinement and shackling of adolescents in the criminal justice system.  During the visit, the delegation received information from State authorities indicating that the use of solitary confinement of detained or incarcerated youth, while not completely prohibited, has been strictly reduced to situations where there is an imminent risk of harm; however, the Rapporteur was informed by incarcerated youth and their families, as well as by civil society organizations, that the practice of solitary confinement, as a disciplinary measure, still exists within the separate prison facility for youth convicted in the adult criminal justice system. Also, regarding the practice of shackling detained juveniles who appear in court or other public places, the delegation was informed that such policies are implemented in all of Colorado’s counties, with one exception, and that the State authorities have made attempts to legislatively prohibit its use, but these have proven futile.  The Commission reminds the State that international law considers solitary confinement of adolescents as torture and absolutely prohibits its use. The Rapporteur received information about a child that committed suicide while in solitary confinement, and of several other cases of attempted suicides in similar conditions and thus urgently calls on the State to stop this practice.

The Rapporteur observes that the State of Colorado has made important progress in the development of detention facilities within the juvenile justice system, and given consideration to the particular situation of children and their special need for protection, geared towards providing specialized assistance and support focused on family and community involvement, in order to guarantee their rehabilitation and reintegration in society.  Nevertheless, the Rapporteur considers that the State should redouble its efforts to ensure that all children and adolescents in conflict with the law receive specialized care during the time they are deprived of liberty, by way of coordination and collaboration among all youth detention facilities.

Finally, the Rapporteur has expressed the need for a comprehensive and specialized juvenile justice system, which should include specialized courts, public defenders and district attorneys, interdisciplinary professional teams, and others, such as specially trained police, with sufficient resources and training to function properly and in a timely manner, as well as adequate coordination between different actors, in order to guarantee the rights of all children in contact with the justice system. The delegation has observed with concern that in Colorado, children as young as 10 years of age can be held responsible for delinquency charges, and that many children and adolescents are wrongly advised to plead guilty to charges, on the unfounded presumption of receiving less severe punishment.  Furthermore, the Commissioner has noted a deficiency of alternative programs to the prosecution of children and adolescents, which must be made available as a priority at the state and local levels. The Rapporteur has observed a deficiency in data collection and analysis concerning the impact of the criminal justice system on the situation of children and adolescents in contact with it, necessary to promote effective preventive policies and programs.

During the visit, Commissioner Ortiz highlighted that “much greater efforts must be made to prevent the entry of children into the criminal justice system, and to combat the social, economic or other causes that can lead to children coming into conflict with the law in the first place.”

Moreover, the Commission reiterates its recommendation to all US states to adopt laws that prohibit children under the age of 18 from being prosecuted in adult courts.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 134/14