child handcuffed kid juvenile

A task force studying the gaps in services if policymakers raise the minimum age that Colorado children can be charged with crimes released its final report, recommending a slew of changes to mitigate potential impacts. 

The Pre-Adolescent Task Force was created by House Bill 22-1131, passed by the legislature in June. The bill originally sought to raise the minimum age for criminal prosecution from 10 to 13 years old, but was downgraded to a study after opponents on both sides of the aisle raised concerns that not criminally charging the children would prevent them from accessing needed resources.

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The task force's report offers the foundation for supporters to pursue a new bill to raise the age for criminal prosecution. While the measure has not yet been introduced, advocates told Colorado Politics that it will come this session. 

The report noted how task force members "wrestled with obstacles they feel might exist and what modifications would be necessary to better serve youth ages should the age be raised." What's clear, the report said, is the need for enhanced and more robust prevention strategies and services at both the state and local level.

The task force said removing children ages 10, 11 and 12 who commit crimes from the juvenile justice system could revoke their access to state therapy services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, family counseling and related financial supports, in addition to providing no process for determining what happened if the child says they didn’t commit the crime they’re accused of.

The report also concluded that, without criminal charges, victims of crimes committed by children aged 10 through 12 could lose access to protection orders, victims’ compensation, restorative justice and child advocacy centers, and could not participate in the justice system via victim impact statements.

To address these concerns, the report made the following recommendations for the legislature:

  • Expand and better utilize current programs and services before creating new ones

  • Create a statewide entity to ensure that victim resources are accessible statewide, replicating successful local efforts 

  • Partner with schools and school support agencies to provide crime prevention services 

  • Expand the methods for children and families to be referred to support services outside of the criminal justice system

  • Explore ways to compel families and youth to participate in support services without a court order

  • Create an intervention plan for children exhibiting problematic behaviors to determine their risks and needs

  • Empower families of children exhibiting problematic behaviors to proactively address them and seek services

  • Seek and support providers that offer services without a court order

  • Engage victims more robustly and proactively instead of requiring them to request services

  • Consult the Sex Offender Management Board regarding information, data and best practices for children exhibiting problematic sexual behavior

To help fund these actions, the report also recommends allowing blended funding streams and revising current limitations that require court filings or police reports for the state to fund support services. 

Last year’s HB 22-1131 would have removed children aged 10, 11 and 12 from the juvenile court's jurisdiction, increasing the age for prosecution from 10 to 13 years old, except when a child is suspected of committing murder or felony sexual assault. The bill would have also increased the minimum age when a child can be tried as an adult from 12 to 14 years old. 

Critics disapproved of increasing the age for prosecution, arguing that children need to face consequences for committing serious offenses like seriously injuring someone or bringing a gun to school. Supporters countered that children should not have to experience the trauma and potentially life-altering consequences of an arrest to get support, insisting the criminal justice system doesn’t address root causes of juvenile crime. 

In Colorado, an average of 525 children between 10 and 12 years old are charged with crimes each year, according to state estimates. Of those, around three are charged with felonies, 64 are charged with misdemeanors, 446 are charged with juvenile delinquency and 12 are charged with traffic offenses. The average length of stay in Colorado’s juvenile detention centers is 17 months, according to state data. 

One study found that up to 90% of people in the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma, including high rates of physical or sexual abuse. Children of color are also arrested at disproportionately high rates. From 2012 to 2020, Black children made up less than 7% of Colorado’s 10 to 12 year old population, but made up 20% of those detained, according to state data.

Arrested children are more likely to be arrested as adults, less likely to graduate high school, more likely to be unemployed and face a higher risk of violence and sexual abuse while in detention, said Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, who sponsored HB 22-1131.