Nathan Jordan is serving a 170-year sentence at Sterling Correction Facility in Colorado for aggravated robbery, motor vehicle theft and possession of a weapon.
But most of his crimes, which did not result in anyone’s death or injury, took place in in the late 1990s, before he was 18 . According to Colorado law, he was a juvenile offender.
So how did Jordan end up with the kind of sentence that might be meted out to serial killers or career criminals?
The answer is devastatingly simple: he was tried in adult court.
Graffiti is a common sight in the neighborhood around the Access Art Gallery in Denver – not inside, hanging on the walls – but scribbled, pasted or painted on nearly every dumpster and wall for blocks.
“There’s a lot of kids going back and forth through the neighborhood. There was tagging all over the place,” says Damon McLeese, the gallery’s executive director.
Like many places across the country, Denver’s streets show scars of vandalism: Stickers on street signs, scrawls of fat-tipped markers across doorways, and spray paint arching down from seemingly impossible heights.
But where many businesses would have seen an unstoppable scourge of youth defacing private property, McLeese saw an opportunity for a project that would redirect some of the kids’ creative energies and help improve the community.
Nearly twenty years after Denver's much-hyped "Summer of Violence" triggered a harsher approach to juvenile offenders statewide, lawmakers are wrestling with two reform bills -- and a new report contends that Colorado's system for moving juvenile cases into adult court isn't working and doesn't provide adequate protection for teen defendants.
"Re-Directing Justice," a report released last week by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, takes a hard look at the statistics on juveniles in adult criminal court since a 1993 special legislative session widened the net for such prosecutions. Colorado is one of only four states in which district attorneys have enormous discretion to prosecute offenders in the fourteen-to-seventeen age range in adult court without a judicial hearing on the issue, a process known as "direct file."
The CJCD report indicates that while direct file was intended to be used in only the most serious cases, it's often employed in mid-range felony cases against teens who have no prior criminal record -- and disproportionately in cases involving defendants of color. And in the vast majority of those cases, the juveniles never get their case heard by a judge and jury; a whopping 95 percent of direct-file cases result in plea bargains.
But whether the resulting time in adult prison is a "bargain" or not is debatable -- as in the case of last month's cover story about Tara Perry, a sixteen-year-old first-time offender who took a plea deal and was sentenced to 66 years for her role in a crime spree in which she didn't kill or injure anyone.