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Colorado to continue prosecuting children as young as 10

The proposal to raise the juvenile prosecution age except in murder cases stalled in Senate
Colorado will continue to prosecute children as young as 10 years old after a proposal to raise to age to 13 failed in the state Senate. (Durango Herald file)

Colorado will continue to prosecute children as young as 10 years old after a plan to raise the age to 13 failed for the second year in a row at the state Capitol.

The proposal – opposed by police officers, district attorneys and state child welfare officials – made it through the House after an emotional debate but stalled in the Senate after about 10 hours of battle over multiple days. Instead, senators replaced the 55-page bill with a 13-page “strike below” amendment, or a rewrite of essentially everything below the bill title, on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.

The new version allows prosecutors to continue charging children ages 10 to 12 but says they can refer them to community services outside the juvenile justice system. It provides $1.5 million to build up those community services, and requires district attorneys, the child welfare system and the agencies that coordinate those services and report their outcomes to the legislature.

The bill set off a political standoff between district attorneys and lawmakers, often from the same counties. Many prosecutors – including Boulder County’s Michael Dougherty, Jefferson County’s Alexis King and Adams County’s Brian Mason – warned that it was a dangerous measure that would not protect crime victims, including children who were sexually assaulted by other children, and that it would strip prosecutors of the ability to force kids to comply with rehabilitation services.

The original proposal had some bipartisan support, but most Republicans and some Democrats were against it. Among those opposed was Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But on the night the committee sent the legislation to the full Senate on a 3-2 vote, Roberts was replaced with another Democrat.

The proposal as introduced would have prohibited prosecution of kids under age 13, except for murder.

Many lawmakers who were against the measure said they were not opposed to raising the prosecution age for most crimes but that Colorado currently doesn’t have a robust enough system of community services to make sure those children receive rehabilitation.

The plan was to require every county to set up a system in which authorities would refer 10- to 12-year-olds who get into criminal trouble to mentoring, therapy, anger management and substance use treatment. Law enforcement officers would complete a form to refer them to “collaborative management programs,” which were created by state law in 2004 and already exist in 51 of Colorado’s 64 counties. Right now, the programs coordinate services for children who are involved in multiple systems, such as child welfare and juvenile justice.

The problem, some lawmakers argued, is that community programs are already overwhelmed helping kids who are in foster care because their parents abused them.

“Maybe they were beating the heck out of them,” said Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican. “They might have burned them with cigarettes. They might have sexually assaulted their own child. Those are the kind of kids that I was fighting for.”

Kirkmeyer said she also was concerned that victims of crimes committed by 10- to-12-year-olds would have to enter the child welfare system in order to get the type of victims’ services they would have gotten through the criminal justice system.

“If I was the parent or a grandparent of a victim, I would not be wanting to send that child to the child welfare system,” she said. “You would have to say things like, ‘The child is unsafe in their home. The parents aren’t providing a safe environment for their child.’ That would be said about a victim.”

After days of debate, “a few tears and a lot of lost sleep,” Kirkmeyer said, the rewrite of the bill began circulating at 5:30 a.m. Sunday. She and others praised the process, which included lawmakers on both sides.

The bill’s two lead sponsors in the Senate – Alamosa Republican Cleave Simpson and Denver Democrat James Coleman – presented their rewrite Sunday night. Their hope, they said, is that Colorado will analyze new data about what works best for children, build up its community services system and vote another time to raise the juvenile prosecution age.

“What an experience about how policy can and sometimes functions here,” Simpson said.

The new version of the bill passed 31-4 in the Senate on Monday, then headed back to the House, where it passed 52-13. Lead sponsor Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, said there were plenty of compromises during the last few weeks that should have eased opponents’ concerns about the proposal. The weakened version of the bill was “shameful,” she said.

Healthier Colorado, an advocacy group that pushed for raising the age to 13, said the “11th-hour amendment” showed that “politics won out over the interests of kids.” Like many of the bill’s supporters, the group argued that community programs would fill the gap both in rehabilitating children and helping victims.

“If you’re a politician who wants to put handcuffs on a 10-year-old, you’re not tough on crime. You’re tough on children,” CEO Jake Williams said in an email Monday.

Several Republicans who spoke out against the measure questioned why Colorado would pass such a law when youth violent crime is on the rise. And prosecutors and victims testified during committee hearings about horrific crimes committed by children younger than 13, including a recent case in the 17th Judicial District of Adams and Broomfield counties in which a 12-year-old shot and killed a 15-year-old.

One mother gave tearful testimony about a 12-year-old boy sexually abusing her 5-year-old daughter. The boy was put on probation and court-ordered to attend counseling, which would not have happened under the new proposal.

It’s extremely rare that children under 13 end up sentenced, or “committed,” to spend time in a juvenile detention center. That’s because most children that young are sentenced to probation that includes mandatory rehabilitation services.

In the past 10 years, only four children 12 and younger were committed in Colorado, according to data provided to The Colorado Sun by the Division of Youth Services. Many more, however, were arrested and detained in juvenile facilities while a judge decided their case.

In the six years from 2016 to 2021, 455 children ages 10, 11 and 12 were detained for days or months in juvenile justice centers. Of those, 49 were 10-year-olds.

Children who spend time in juvenile detention are more likely to return to the corrections system as children and adults. And the system is overrepresented by children who are minorities or who have disabilities.

Republicans spent hours trying to delay the bill in the final days of the legislative session, using filibuster tactics such as describing various crimes that would not result in prosecution if they were committed by a 10-, 11- or 12-year-old. Those included burning a house down, breaking into a home and pointing a gun at the homeowner, shooting into a crowd but not killing anyone and bringing a gun to school.

“This is the wrong time for this,” said Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Parker Republican. “This is the wrong time to lighten society’s concerns around kids who bring guns to school.”

The legislature rejected a similar proposal last year, instead creating a task force to study the issue. The findings of that group informed to this year’s proposal.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, journalist-owned news outlet exploring issues of statewide interest. Sign up for a newsletter and read more at coloradosun.com.