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A desk inside a bedroom at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a juvenile correction facility for boys in Golden. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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

So far this year, Colorado has arrested and locked up 33 kids ages 10-12. Four of them were 10.

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

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

Supporters who backed the change in law argued that elementary school-age children who are locked up are usually arrested for acting out because of what’s going on in their lives, and that they need mental health or other community support rather than a locked room within the state Division of Youth Services. 

Almost all kids that young who are locked in detention centers in Colorado are not deemed dangerous enough to stay. Of the nearly 500 kids that age who were detained in the past seven years, only two were “committed,” meaning they were convicted and sentenced to a term in the juvenile equivalent of jail. The rest were released after serving an average of one to three weeks in detention. 

A disproportionate number of kids in foster care, as well as children who are Black, are detained at ages 10, 11 and 12. About 19% of kids in that 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 of moving the needle in the right direction.”

“At the end of the day, we heard that nobody wants to see a fourth grader in handcuffs or behind bars,” said Dafna Gozani, a senior policy attorney with the national initiative. “But they wanted to see how those kids could access services outside the justice system.” 

Opponents of the legislation, which included the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, questioned whether the state has enough services in place to help young kids after they’ve broken the law. 

When kids are arrested, they are assessed to determine whether they are a danger to themselves or others, and if deemed so, are held in youth lockup. They typically spend a few days, or a few weeks, in detention before they are released back home, but then have access to rehabilitation and treatment services through the juvenile justice system. 

But Gozani said arguing that kids need to enter youth corrections in order to get help is only perpetuating the status quo. “It’s become a default,” she said. “People have a hard time imagining that there would be other ways.”

Gozani wants Colorado to deal with 10-12-year-olds the same way it now deals with 9-year-olds, which is to link them to school counselors, therapists and other community support systems. The role of the task force — in short order, since it has just seven months until its deadline — is to figure out which agencies would assess young kids’ needs, what community supports are missing and how to build more. 

The key question is how to get help for young kids in trouble without involving them in the juvenile justice system. The job could fall to county child welfare divisions, which already have high caseloads, and in some counties, overburdened staff. 

Minna Castillo Cohen, who leads the state’s Office of Children, Youth and Families and was appointed to lead the new task force, said the group will review data to discover what pipelines are leading young kids into the juvenile justice system. She wants to find out how many overlap with county child welfare systems and truancy courts. 

The 10-year-olds that I see who may come to us for felony menacing or aggravated assault clearly have something else going on in their life 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 felony menacing or aggravated assault clearly have something else going on in their life that we need to address,” Castillo Cohen said. “Our focus has become very much about treatment and rehabilitation and I don’t know that a young person needs to come into a juvenile justice system to access those services. I don’t know that they need to come into a child welfare system to access those resources. And I don’t think that our community needs a third system, either.”

It’s likely that services for kids ages 10, 11 and 12 might still begin with a phone call to police. But instead of bringing young kids to a juvenile assessment center, law officers would hand them off to another agency that would set them up with rehabilitation services, including family support or substance abuse treatment, Castillo Cohen said. 

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

Of the 774 times that children ages 10, 11 and 12 were detained since 2016, 533 were for felonies, according to the Division of Youth Services. Of those felonies, 31 involved a weapon, 355 were crimes against people and 120 were property crimes.

More than half of kids who’ve been detained since 2016 have also spent time in a foster home, group home or residential center through the child welfare system.

Senators on the judiciary committee, which passed the amended version of the legislation this month, argued over whether to hand the matter off to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice instead of creating a new task force. That commission was created in 2007 to help craft legislation to improve public safety and reduce prison recidivism. 

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a prime sponsor of the juvenile prosecution legislation, fought to create the new task force, noting that the commission has focused more on adult criminal justice bills over the years and not juvenile issues. The new task force will include district attorney and law enforcement representatives, as well as people from pediatric mental health and sexual assault organizations, and those who spent time in foster care, were homeless or were in a juvenile detention center.

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

“We are talking about children ages 10 to 12 and the service provision that those children require is fundamentally different than 18-year-olds and even 13-year-olds,” said Gonzales, a Denver Democrat. “Markedly different.” 

The bill was passed in the final two days of the legislative session and is awaiting Gov. Jared Polis’ signature.

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

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: Twitter: @jenbrowncolo