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Colorado youth corrections system sees biggest spike in violent offenders in a decade

In the past four years, the number of young people committed to the Colorado Division of Youth Services for homicide or manslaughter has jumped 141%.

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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The number of young people in Colorado’s youth corrections system because they killed someone jumped by 32% in the past fiscal year, an alarming increase that coincides with the system’s largest spike in youth violent crime in a decade. 

Even more startling: In the past four years, the number of youth in the Colorado Division of Youth Services for the offenses of homicide and manslaughter has risen by 141%.

While 41 young people were held for homicide or manslaughter in the past fiscal year, there were 17 incarcerated for those crimes in 2017. Those numbers don’t include teens who were tried in court as adults and sent to the adult prison system.

The increase is a “reflection, unfortunately, of access to handguns on the street and an increase in youth violence,” said Anders Jacobson, division director. 

“Our state has done a good job in really reforming our efforts to ensure that for youth who do not need to be in the deep-end-of-the-system places, like the Division of Youth Services, we are finding different avenues,” he said in an interview with The Colorado Sun. “Having said that, there is always going to be a certain population that needs our services.” 

The latest statistics, released Friday in the division’s annual report, show that even as the population in the state’s youth corrections system has been declining in recent years, the offenses are growing more violent. Youth offenders also are entering the system with more complex problems, including mental health and substance abuse.

The youth corrections system, which includes 12 state-run facilities, holds young people ages 10 to 21 either in detention — before their cases go to court — and after they are “committed” by a judge. 

The annual report includes data from July 2019 through June, a timeframe when the division saw the largest jump in the past decade of young people committed for violent crimes. Five years ago, 23% of young people were committed for violent offenses, compared with 41% now. 

The percentage of youth committed to the system for crimes against a person also has spiked. Now, half of all young people in the system are serving sentences for crimes against a person, up from about 40% the prior year.

Youth corrections experts in Colorado and other states are researching the increase in violent offenses, Jacobson said. “A lot of people are trying to understand that phenomenon,” he said. 

As youth crimes have become more violent, so have young people’s needs for mental health treatment and other therapies, the report shows. The need for mental health intervention has climbed 10% in the past four years. Now, 67% of youth entering the system need mental health treatment and 92% need treatment for substance abuse. 

Young people are entering the Colorado Division of Youth Services with more complex treatment needs, including in mental health and substance abuse. (DYS annual report)

One bright spot in the annual report: The system saw a 10% increase in young people earning a GED or high school diploma in the past fiscal year, despite the decline in overall population. 

While the total population in the youth corrections system has been in decline for years, it dropped dramatically — by 38% — in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. In April, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order allowing the system to release incarcerated youth to early parole if they met certain criteria.

This week, the number of youth held in the system on detention or serving sentences was 375.

Since March, 260 staff and 113 youth have been infected with the coronavirus. There was just one active case in the youth population and 14 among staff this week, however. 

The system has enacted sweeping changes in the past several years in an attempt to create a culture of rehabilitation and an atmosphere less like an adult prison. Assaults within the lock-up facilities, seclusion as punishment and physical holds have declined since 2017, when the division enacted new policies. 

A common room outside a boys’ pod in the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden. Colorado’s Division of Youth Services has transformed spaces to appear more like a home than a correctional facility. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We very rarely use seclusion and when we do, 99% of those young people are out within an hour,” Jacobson said. 

As the population has declined, the state has not closed youth centers but instead has created smaller pods and improved staff-to-youth ratios, Jacobson said. 

At Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, where a report found rampant drug use and several teens and staff were injured in a riot in 2019, the division has instituted the “smaller-is-better” concept. The large center was divided into three centers and youth rehabilitation and education programs were improved, Jacobson said.

Rising Sun