Just over 500 children ages 10, 11 and 12 were charged with crimes in Colorado juvenile court last year – a number a trio of Democratic lawmakers hope to bring down to zero.
State Senator Julie Gonzales and Representatives Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Jennifer Bacon are pushing to raise the minimum age for juvenile prosecution in the state from 10 to 13 in all cases except where a child is suspected of homicide.
The move is intended to prevent a host of consequences down the road for children arrested at such a young age, the bill’s supporters said, although some opponents said the court system is a necessary tool for obtaining justice. aid for children and that it cannot be quickly or easily replaced.
“That label really sticks on a child, the feeling that they’re a bad kid, that they’re a criminal,” said Dafna Gozani, senior policy attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “This stigma lasts a very long time. … What we know from the studies that follow these children is that they are more likely to engage in the adult system, less likely to graduate from high school, to perform worse health matter.
Currently, children as young as 10 in Colorado can be charged with crimes and sentenced to juvenile detention. In 2019, prosecutors filed 789 delinquency cases against children ages 10, 11, or 12, according to data provided by the Colorado Department of Justice. This figure fell to 589 in 2020 and to 506 in 2021.
Gozani said children who break into an abandoned building, fight at school or throw toilet paper at a house on Halloween don’t necessarily need intensive mental health services or counseling, and discipline for 10 , 11 and 12 years old. older children may be treated better by parents or teachers than by police, prosecutors and judges.
“We’re talking about the schoolyard behavior that once upon a time kids weren’t sent to jail for,” Bacon said.
But the proposed law change would apply to both minor and serious offences, which some opponents have disputed. Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty told a lengthy public hearing in February that the proposed changes would leave a void that was hard to fill.
“If a 12-year-old rapes a 10-year-old girl living next door, under this bill, when the police respond, all they have to do is say, ‘We have no role here,'” Dougherty said. . “We owe it to the 10-year-old girl and her family to support her, to help her and to make sure the right thing happens…and we owe it to the 12-year-old boy to help her and s “Ensuring he continues on the right track. This is currently done through the juvenile justice system. There is currently no other system that can take on this role.”
The bill allows police to place children in pre-trial detention and then connect them with services. But Dougherty and Denver District Attorney Beth McCann both testified in February that the proposed changes needed further study.
All of the state’s 22 elected district attorneys oppose the bill as introduced, said Elizabeth Schrack, communications officer for the Colorado Board of District Attorneys.
McCann said many of the city’s juvenile criminal cases are dismissed and records expunged after children receive treatment.
“My juvenile staff are concerned that without the expectation of a juvenile case, treatment will take place,” McCann said.
Proponents of the bill said there are other systems that could ensure children get help when they misbehave, and that there is no need to wait for a perfect solution before proceeding. remove young children from the justice system, as the harm and trauma of these interactions are well established. .
“The challenge for adults is to get out of the mindset of ‘The only way we know to connect kids to services is to shut them down,'” said Elise Logemann, youth policy adviser for the American Civil Liberty Union of Colorado. “We know that’s not true.”
She mentioned school services, community mental health providers or child protection as alternatives to the court system. Although juvenile courts are designed to be more rehabilitative and less punitive than the adult system, the reality doesn’t always meet that standard, said attorney Katie Hecker, who handles juvenile cases.
“I’ve seen, more often than not, the punitive ethos of the adult system trickle down to the juvenile system,” she said. “We forget that they are children, whether they are 10 or 17 years old, we forget that their brains are not developed…”
The bill is expected to go before the House Judiciary Committee for the second time on Tuesday. One possible amendment, Logemann said, could be to delay implementation of the law change and create a task force to first review potential large-scale replacements for the juvenile justice system.
“Ultimately, these systems were created,” Bacon said of the juvenile justice system. “That’s why we assume we can make another one.”