Commentary

Colorado has the opportunity to pass bipartisan, leading-edge youth crime prevention policy

Collaborative Management Programs would provide support and service to help children and their families reach better outcomes

April 25, 2023 3:40 am

(Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

Bipartisan legislation to address the minimum age of juvenile court just passed the Colorado House of Representatives and is now making its way through the Senate. The bill, which greatly improves a similar one introduced last year, is much more comprehensive than the previous legislation and aligns well with the current scientific understanding of adolescent development.

As a former deputy district attorney for Weld and Moffatt counties and victim representative, last year’s legislation to “raise the age” of kids who could be prosecuted for crimes from 10 to 13 left me with serious concerns and questions about victim support and public safety. In my previous work prosecuting kids, it was clear these young individuals were in the juvenile justice system not because they were criminals but because every other system up to this point had failed them. Prosecuting them was a necessity, a trade-off, to get kids the services they so obviously needed.

Beyond the individual child, working in the justice system means looking at the broader context and challenges that make it up: Who will intervene to support these struggling kids if not the justice system? How do we ensure that these kids are getting services so they don’t re-offend? And, how do we engage and support victims? Thankfully, the bill resulted in a task force to address these issues.

That is, most would agree — even some prosecutors and law enforcement — that these young kids need support, treatment and rehabilitative services, not punishment. Research shows that the brain is still developing well into a person’s 20s, affecting youth’s decision-making and impulse control. Changes to the minimum age for juvenile jurisdiction recognize this developmental reality and aim to decrease the negative impacts resulting from early childhood court involvement. But these changes need to be implemented safely and thoughtfully.

Fortunately, legislation this year includes a robust framework to use Collaborative Management Programs (CMP) — which already exist in a vast majority of Colorado counties — along with additional safety and accountability measures. CMPs provide individualized support and service teams, and a subsequent plan, to help children and their families reach better outcomes. The bill also provides for accountability measures through the Department of Human Services to ensure that children and their families comply with the plan.

By effectively addressing the root causes of a kid’s problematic behavior, we are preventing future crime and making our communities safer.

CMPs, which have been used in Colorado since 2004, have had great success increasing safety and reducing future justice involvement. In contrast, research shows kids’ involvement in the juvenile justice system results in rates of recidivism as high as 75%-85% in a five-year period.

This new way to address “criminal” acts committed by young kids is critical. By effectively addressing the root causes of a kid’s problematic behavior, we are preventing future crime and making our communities safer. By diverting these kids from the juvenile justice system — which can have severe negative impacts, including long-term trauma — youth are given the opportunity to improve and go on to live a more successful life. By removing these cases from overburdened court dockets, prosecutors can prioritize spending their time and resources on more high-risk teen cases.

And while it felt like victims had essentially been forgotten in last year’s bill, this year’s legislation aims to protect victims’ rights to be informed and engaged, preserve victims’ access to victim’s compensation, and provide extra measures to get a civil protection order. Moreover, under the proposed legislation, victims will be able to access the same level of support and services that the offending child will. In fact, some of the changes create improvements to what victims have access to under that status quo.

Although generally, it is rare for kids ages 10 to 12 to commit crimes that involve a victim, it is concerning that the way our current system operates only allows us to help after someone is victimized. Prevention is needed to better protect our loved ones from victimization. This bill will help prevent future crime, which in turn, makes our communities safer and lessens the likelihood that someone we know will be hurt.

I have committed a majority of my career to protecting victims and upholding public safety. It is important to me that criminal justice reforms do not come at the expense of either harmed individuals or community safety. This bill includes recommendations from a litany of key stakeholders and has earned bipartisan support.

Colorado has an opportunity to pass leading-edge youth crime prevention policy and lawmakers should make this critical issue a legislative priority.

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Lisel Petis
Lisel Petis

Lisel Petis is a Colorado resident, a former deputy district attorney for Moffatt and Weld counties and victim advocate, and a resident senior fellow for Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute.

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