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All too often, the criminal legal system denies people their humanity. Young people are reduced to “juveniles,” adults are reduced to “felons.” Sensationalized mug shots and handcuffs disregard the complexities that come with acts of harm, restoration, healing, and justice.
Art, however, has long served to affirm our humanity. With every workshop, I am reminded that young people in Colorado Division of Youth Services custody aren’t just “juveniles” — they are survivors. They’ve survived abuse, neglect, trafficking and other adverse crises. They’re kids that continue to run into — and push back against — entrenched systemic barriers against people experiencing poverty, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ people.
Most of all, our youth have hopes and dreams. They deserve the love, support and understanding of adults around them — something I wish more of our elected officials and decision-makers understood.
Because so many of our youth-serving institutions have long been starved — public schools, foster homes, treatment homes — the legal system becomes the final and often only net catching youth in need of help. And yet, instead of uplifting them, it entangles them.
Young people languish behind bars — both in pre-trial detention and after being committed — because facilities are severely understaffed and often cannot provide the most basic rehabilitative services. Our staff at Mirror Image Arts have been turned away from facilities because of insufficient staffing at DYS facilities. With DYS facilities lacking personnel like licensed clinical social workers, we had to hire our own in order to provide essential emotional-social services to incarcerated young people.
When I heard about DYS’s recent request to raise the bed cap for pre-trial detention, I was deeply concerned. How can we possibly take care of more young people when we can’t even offer the needed depth of support for youth held there now?
It’s time to give justice-impacted young people another shot at being included in our communities.
With the state Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee instead approving a set-aside for justice-impacted youth, however, we have a chance to instead address long-standing issues in DYS facilities. Ensuring that there are enough child psychologists, substance abuse counselors, and other mental health professionals so that every child in pre-trial custody has access to quality mental health services is an excellent starting point.
These professionals and additional social-emotional programs help process the trauma, habits, and choices that contribute to incarceration. These services help young people reintegrate after incarceration. Ensuring that a diverse group of stakeholders — not just law enforcement — is involved in decision-making around resource allocation is another starting point.
I long for the day that our public schools, foster homes, and treatment homes have the funding they need to prevent another child from entering the juvenile legal system in the first place.
Science has long acknowledged that kids have unique developmental needs compared to adults. This is reflected in the attempts to separate the juvenile legal system and the adult criminal legal system.
It’s time, however, that we make the developmental needs of children in DYS custody a cornerstone. Especially after the enormous disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to give justice-impacted young people another shot at being included in our communities. It’s time to affirm the humanity of every single young person — and direct our fiscal resources to do just that.
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