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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)

Colorado’s youth corrections system wants to raise the number of kids and teens it is allowed under state law to hold in detention to 249 from 215, a proposed increase that has sparked questions about the future of juvenile justice. 

The budget request comes only two years after state lawmakers significantly lowered the bed limit for the Division of Youth Services, reducing the number of young people allowed in lockup at one time to 215 from 327. That move in 2021 was aimed at pushing more kids into community programs that focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment, rather than locking them up in one of Colorado’s juvenile detention centers. 

Now the division is asking for a 15% increase in capacity, which would require 38 more employees and $3.3 million per year by 2023-24. 

The move is stirring up controversy at the state Capitol this session, and forcing lawmakers on the six-member Joint Budget Committee to decide whether to give their approval to a plan that is the opposite of what the legislature passed in 2021. 

It also comes as the division asked for a budget decrease of $1.8 million because of a decline in the number of young people sent to step-down treatment programs. That number has dropped, youth corrections officials said, because the overall number of teens entering youth corrections has declined and because several residential treatment programs have shut their doors.

The issue is so controversial that division officials would only answer questions from The Sun in writing, an unusual move for youth corrections. 

On average last fiscal year, the juvenile system had 159 young people in detention per day, with a maximum of 181, according to the division’s annual report. That’s 34 young people below the current bed limit. 

But youth corrections officials say that number is creeping up this fiscal year, hitting a one-day high of 208 in November — only seven below capacity. And one detention center operated at 90% capacity. That’s the nearest Colorado has come to the bed limit in 15 years. 

Colorado set a statutory cap on juvenile detention in 2003. It began at 479 beds and was lowered in 2011, 2013, 2019 and 2021. The state has 15 juvenile facilities. Eight hold young people in detention before their case has been decided, while the others contain those who are serving sentences.

“When we are near the cap, as we are now, we have to begin moving people between jurisdictions depending on where beds are actually available, which is less than ideal for youths and their families,” Heidi Bauer, the division’s director of legislative affairs, said in an email. “Actually reaching the cap is possible, and would require minute-by-minute coordination between the 22 judicial districts to ensure the cap was never exceeded.”

That coordination includes not only transferring young people to different counties, but “emergency releasing” them, she said. The youth corrections system is fluid, with kids and teens entering and exiting daily. About 2,300 young people spend time in detention throughout the year, and the division is not allowed to exceed the cap even for one day. 

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)

Caseload projections are rising for the first time in 15 years, expected to reach about 180 this year and 200 by 2025. Those are daily averages, so the system needs room to sometimes go above 215 young people, officials said. Juvenile arrests increased 19% in Colorado from 2021 to 2022, while detention admissions increased 10%. 

Rep. Lindsey Daugherty, an Arvada Democrat who was the prime sponsor of the 2021 legislation that lowered the cap, said the Division of Youth Services was “jamming a bill” through the Joint Budget Committee after she spent months gathering bipartisan support for long-term policy change.

“I was upset,” she said. “This is a policy decision where we need to look at the data and the facts. We have not yet as a state reached the bed cap of 215. This narrative that we are in a crisis situation is a little premature.”

Daughtery, a former guardian ad litem for children in the system, said she is requesting data from judicial districts across the state, as well as from the youth corrections system, to figure out how many beds the state actually needs. 

“We’re talking about kids,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t be detained pre-adjudication when they could be at home or in school.” 

Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee, said she voted to reduce the bed cap in 2021 and now has “serious reservations” about undoing that law. 

“The bed cap had to do with ensuring that we were putting youth in the least restrictive place possible,” she said. “Some of the justifications for the need for more beds included things like they didn’t have enough ankle monitors, or there might have been a victim of human trafficking and they didn’t want to put that youth in a hotel.

“For children that should not be there, we shouldn’t place them there.” 

Youth corrections officials say the projections used in the past to estimate the need for juvenile detention beds were underestimated. Also, artificially low numbers of kids in juvenile detention in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic might have skewed the projections.

But critics, including the ACLU of Colorado, questioned the division’s priorities and why officials are asking to raise the bed limit when they have not ever reached it. 

“There hasn’t been a moment where the bed cap has been fully hit statewide,” said Anaya Robinson, a senior policy strategist with ACLU of Colorado.

Two years ago, the legislature gave robust, careful consideration to best practices in juvenile justice before reducing the bed cap to 215, he said. That law called on the state to explore other interventions to help young people stay out of detention and reduce the likelihood they commit repeat offenses. 

“We’re looking at basically reversing something that we haven’t even had the time to see fully whether or not it’s working,” Robinson said. “It seems premature.” 

Colorado needs to scale up its alternatives to juvenile detention, including residential centers that treat mental health and substance use issues, he said. A severe shortage of behavioral health beds in the state means some young people are sitting in juvenile detention when they could go to a treatment center, he said. 

Healthier Colorado, a health advocacy nonprofit, is also opposed to raising the cap and is looking into whether some judicial districts are sending more kids to detention than others. 

“Why are we investing in waiting rooms that happen to be jails instead of investing in community based programs?” asked Kyle Piccola, vice president for advocacy. “Investing in more beds isn’t preventing crime.”

Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican and member of the budget committee, said she wanted to see the youth corrections system’s count of how many young people are let out on emergency release to make space for new ones. 

“If we’re doing emergency releases on kids that actually probably still need some additional services and we can’t find placement for that’s a problem,” she said. “It’s a huge problem.” 

The request to raise the bed limit would cost $938,000 and nine employees next year, jumping to $3.3 million and 38 employees in subsequent years. 

As the population in juvenile detention centers has declined, the percentage of young people sent to a facility for a violent crime has been climbing, up to 41% in 2022. That compared with 35% in 2021, according to the agency’s annual report

The system holds young people ages 10 to 21 either in detention — before their cases go to court — and after they are “committed” by a judge. Of the 167 children and teens who were committed to serve out a sentence last year, 71 were for violent crimes, including six murders and nine attempted murders. 

Nearly 80% of kids and teens committed to a Division of Youth Services center last year needed substance abuse treatment, according to the agency’s data. More than two-thirds of young people in the system need mental health treatment. 

Jennifer Brown

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...