Colorado can still arrest and lock up 10-year-olds, for now

The youngest children arrested and locked up in Colorado’s youth correctional system are 10, a practice that will continue for now after legislation to raise the age of prosecution to 13 was rewritten in the final days of the legislative session.

So far this year, Colorado has arrested and locked up 33 children between the ages of 10 and 12. Four of them were 10 years old.

Instead of an immediate and monumental change to the law, lawmakers voted to create a 32-member panel — law enforcement officers, child protection officials, and people with spent time in juvenile detention centers – to take the first step towards raising the minimum age for prosecution from 10 to 13 years. The group has until the end of the year to report on how younger offenders would access services and treatment outside of the state’s youth correctional system.

Colorado is one of 15 states that arrest and prosecute children as young as 10, while 28 states have no minimum age. The original legislation would have prohibited prosecution for anyone under the age of 13, except in cases of homicide.

Proponents who supported the law change argued that elementary school-aged children who are locked up are usually arrested for acting out what is happening in their lives, and that they need mental health or of another community support rather than a locked room in the state Division of Youth Services.

Almost all children this young who are locked up in Colorado detention centers are not deemed dangerous enough to stay there. Of the nearly 500 children of this age who have been detained over the past seven years, only two have been “interned”, meaning they have been convicted and sentenced to juvenile imprisonment. The others were released after serving an average of one to three weeks in detention.

A disproportionate number of foster children, as well as black children, are detained at the age of 10, 11 and 12. About 19% of children in this age group are black, according to the Division of Youth Services. In Colorado, 4.6% of the population is black.

The Youth Justice Initiative, which pushed for the law change, called the task force a “thoughtful and intentional way to move the needle in the right direction.”

“At the end of the day, we heard that no one wanted to see a fourth-grader in handcuffs or behind bars,” said Dafna Gozani, senior policy advocate at the National Initiative. “But they wanted to see how these children could access services outside of the justice system.”

Opponents of the legislation, which included the Colorado Board of District Attorneys and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, questioned whether the state had enough services to help young children after breaking the law.

When children are arrested, they are assessed to determine if they pose a danger to themselves or others, and if they deem so, they are held in a juvenile cell. They usually spend a few days or even weeks in detention before being released back home, but then have access to rehabilitation and treatment services through the juvenile justice system.

But Gozani said the argument that children must enter youth corrections in order to get help only perpetuates the status quo. “It became a default,” she said. “People have a hard time imagining that there would be other ways.”

Gozani wants Colorado to treat 10- to 12-year-olds the same way it currently treats 9-year-olds, which is to connect them with school counselors, therapists and other community support systems. The task force’s role — in the short time, with just seven months left before the deadline — is to figure out which agencies would assess the needs of young children, what community supports are lacking, and how to build more of them.

The key question is how to get help for troubled young children without involving them in the juvenile justice system. The job could fall to county child welfare divisions, which already have a high caseload and, in some counties, overstretched staff.

Minna Castillo Cohen, who heads the state’s Office of Children, Youth and Families and was named to lead the new task force, said the group will look at the data to find out which pipelines are driving young children to the juvenile justice system. She wants to know how many cases overlap with county child welfare systems and truancy courts.

The 10-year-olds I see who may come to us for a felony, threat or aggravated assault clearly have something else in their lives that we need to address.

Minna Castillo Cohen, Office of Children, Youth and Families

“The 10-year-olds that I see who may come to us for threatening felony or aggravated assault clearly have something else in their lives that we need to address,” Castillo Cohen said. “We now focus a lot on treatment and rehabilitation and I don’t know if a young person has to enter a juvenile justice system to access these services. I don’t know if they have to go into a child protection system to access these resources. And I don’t think our community needs a third system either.

It is likely that services for 10, 11 and 12 year olds always start with a phone call to the police. But instead of bringing young children to a juvenile assessment center, court officials would hand them over to another agency that would set them up with rehabilitative services, including family support or drug treatment. , said Castillo Cohen.

The group will present its proposal in time for lawmakers to possibly pass legislation next year that would raise the age of prosecution, she said.

Of the 774 times children ages 10, 11 and 12 have been detained since 2016, 533 were for crimes, according to the Youth Services Division. Of these crimes, 31 involved a weapon, 355 were crimes against persons and 120 were crimes against property.

More than half of children detained since 2016 have also spent time in foster care, group homes or residential centers through the child protection system.

Senators on the Judiciary Committee, which passed the amended version of the legislation this month, debated whether to give the case to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice instead of creating a new panel of judges. work. This commission was established in 2007 to help develop legislation to improve public safety and reduce recidivism in prison.

Senator Julie Gonzales, one of the leading sponsors of juvenile prosecution legislation, fought to create the new task force, noting that the commission has focused more on criminal justice bills for adults over the years and not on juvenile issues. The new task force will include district attorneys and law enforcement officials, as well as people from pediatric mental health and sexual assault organizations, and those who have spent time in foster care, were homeless or were in a juvenile detention center.

Children who are arrested are less likely to graduate and more likely to reoffend, she said.

“We’re talking about 10- to 12-year-olds, and the service delivery that those kids need is fundamentally different than 18-year-olds and even 13-year-olds,” said Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver. “Markingly different.”

The bill passed in the last two days of the legislative session and awaits Governor Jared Polis’ signature.

“We in this building continue to face the fear that arresting, prosecuting and detaining children is somehow the only way to access services for these people,” Gonzales said. “We should be able to work collectively and find a different path.”

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