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Colorado is releasing incarcerated kids early because of coronavirus

The Division of Youth Services has already sent 22 young people to early parole and is evaluating about 300 others.

Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a juvenile corrections facility for boys in Golden, is surrounded by a 16-foot fence with anti-climbing mesh. It is operated by the Colorado Department of Human Services. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s juvenile corrections system has released 22 young people early as it tries to lower its incarcerated population due to the new coronavirus. 

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More teens and young adults are expected to parole early in the coming days and weeks, part of a Division of Youth Services plan to guard against the spread of the virus within its 10 centers across the state. 

No youths have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, but five young people at various facilities have been tested and were kept in isolation awaiting results. All five tests were negative. 

In addition to the early releases, the youth corrections system has eliminated all but essential staff from entering lock-up facilities. Court hearings are shifting to video. Families, volunteers and therapists are doing virtual rather than in-person visits. 

Staff who enter any center go through a screening process that includes a temperature check and questions about their health. Any employee with a fever, sore throat or runny nose is sent home and asked to see their doctor, said Anders Jacobson, director of the state youth corrections system. 

“We have all but cut off all outside individuals,” he said. Staff recently began wearing masks. “It’s difficult to come across masks but we have them.” 

The 22 young people who were released early were all within 31 days of their scheduled parole date, Jacobson said, and many were in a transitional phase that included weekend passes to go out in the community. 

“What we are trying to do is limit youth going in and out with passes,” Jacobson said. Instead, the young people were set up with supervision and required check-ins with an official and sent home. 

Where the teens and young adults planned to live after release has been part of the decision-making process to determine who to send out the door, he said. Just under 2% of kids who leave youth corrections are headed to a foster home, and 17.5% are released to live on their own, according to the most recent data from the Colorado Department of Human Services.

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Now, with unemployment skyrocketing and many businesses shuttered because of the pandemic, is not the ideal time to release young adults to live on their own, Jacobson said, unless they have a secure place to live and a job, Jacobson said. 

“These are some of the things that we have to look at,” he said. “It might be a lower-level offender and doing well and one that would be a good candidate for early release, but if we don’t have the right home situation for them or the right setup, we have to take all that into consideration.” 

Division officials are in the process of evaluating all 320 youths — ages 10 to 21 — who are serving their sentences to determine who else can leave early. More early releases are planned in the coming days and weeks, Jacobson said. 

The division also has about 220 youths held in detention, meaning they have not yet been sentenced and will not be released now. 

Youth corrections officials have noticed a decrease in the number of youths arrested and ordered by the courts to detention, although there has been no official decree from the juvenile judicial system that it will hold back on sending young people to detention centers during the pandemic. 

Jacobson is hoping the juvenile judicial system follows the protocol now in place for the Colorado Department of Corrections. Gov. Jared Polis directed the adult system to avoid transferring inmates between prisons and to limit entry of new inmates. 

“We are continuing to address this seriously and we know that we need to reduce census but reduce it appropriately,” Jacobson said. 

Some jails in Colorado also have released inmates early due to the pandemic. There are two confirmed cases of inmates with the virus — one at the Denver County Jail and another at a community corrections facility in Larimer County

The Colorado human services department oversees youth corrections as well as the licensing of a Westminster youth residential treatment center that is allowed to hold up to 16 children taken into custody by immigration officials. As of last week, there were six children in the center, according to state human services data.

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, which also runs a residential treatment program for youths, did not return calls from The Colorado Sun to find out whether, because of the pandemic, it has released any children who are in the country illegally. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement said in an email that four immigrant children held in the New York region have been confirmed to have COVID-19. 

The federal agency has stopped placement of immigrant children in facilities in California, New York and Washington “out of an abundance of caution” and is trying to place children in the centers closest to them to “limit air travel when possible,” spokeswoman Lydia Holt said. 

A federal judge in California ruled this week that the Trump administration has until Monday to explain why it will not release at least some of the estimated 7,000 immigrant children held in detention, according to the Los Angeles Times.