Children 10-12 can still be arrested in Colorado after bill gutted

Children between the ages of 10 and 12 will still be subject to arrest in Colorado after a bill seeking to raise the minimum age for criminal prosecution was drastically rewritten in the final 24 hours of the legislative session.

The first version of the bipartisan bill, HB23-1249, would have banned the arrest and prosecution of kids ages 10 through 12 for any crimes other than homicide and instead proposed that a network of multi-disciplinary social services teams handle criminal behavior among that age group.

The rewritten version passed by both the House and Senate on Monday does not raise the minimum age for arrest. Instead, it increases funding for the social services teams and requires the collection of data to assess the efficacy of services children are receiving under the current system.

“This bill would’ve allowed us to invest in solutions that are proven to prevent crime, to protect our kids and to build safe communities,” sponsor Sen. James Coleman, D-Denver, said Monday before the Senate voted to pass the amended version. “Unfortunately, what got lost in these conversations is the fact that we’re talking about elementary-aged children. Children who weigh 100 pounds on average. Young children whose typical bedtime is 7:30 p.m. … young children who can’t even ride all the rides at Elitch Gardens.”

After passing the House, the bill met a buzzsaw in the more-moderate Senate, which has gutted or killed several other progressive bills this year. Debate on the bill in the Senate stretched over several hours and multiple days as the clock ticked down on the session, which ended Monday night, and Republicans spoke at length against a bill that one of their colleagues was sponsoring.

“No one in the debate at any time believed that where we are today is where we want to be, or that incarceration is an acceptable thing for a 10-, 11- or 12-year-old in our society and our state,” Republican Sen. Bob Gardner, who opposed the original bill, said Sunday before voting to approve the revised measure. “It’s unacceptable but it may be necessary. And that was the challenge of this bill. It is a good first start.”

An average of 900 kids ages 10 through 12 were arrested in Colorado every year between 2017 and 2021, according to data from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

“Today I feel like we have failed them,” sponsor Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver, said of Colorado’s children. “Politics won out over kids today and that is shameful. I feel shameful. This is politics at its worst.”

Law enforcement and prosecutors lobbied against the bill as introduced, arguing that the current system already provides arrested children with services. The social services teams, called collaborative management programs, are not well-equipped to handle children accused of serious offenses like sex crimes and shootings, some of those opposing the bill said.

A group of police chiefs held a news conference in the Capitol on Thursday, during which they warned that the bill would enable criminals to “seduce” young children into committing crimes. The Colorado District Attorneys Council distributed a handout to reporters describing the laws that children could break without prosecution. (In the first version of the bill, the ban on arrests of 10- to 12-year-olds applied to every crime except homicide.)

Gonzales-Gutierrez said she had sought feedback from law enforcement but that their input wasn’t substantive. They objected to the core of the bill, she said.

“There was a lot of fear-based messaging saying just really awful things about children,” she said.

Data from the Colorado Judicial Department shows that almost all types of juvenile crimes have fallen since 2017. In fiscal year 2022, 5,484 criminal cases were filed against juveniles in Colorado — a 34% decrease from the 8,313 cases filed in fiscal year 2018.

Of the 37 crime types tracked by the judicial department, only two showed significant increases in that time period: weapons charges and homicides.

HB23-1249 is Colorado lawmakers’ second attempt in two years to limit the arrest of young children. A 2022 bill aimed at banning the arrests was amended to instead create a task force to study the effects of increasing the minimum age of arrest to 13.

People who spoke in favor of the bill — pediatricians, child mental health experts, child welfare advocates and educators — said the change would eliminate traumatic arrests for 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds and help them get more personalized help faster. They said kids that young are generally acting out because of circumstances outside of their control: abuse, substance use in the family, unmet mental health needs, and instability in the home.

“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,” said Jake Williams, CEO of Healthier Colorado, which lobbied in support of the bill.

Before the final vote on Monday, Gonzales-Gutierrez said she’d “checked all the boxes” to get the bill passed after the 2022 bill — which she also sponsored — was pared back. She enlisted Rep. Ryan Armagost, a freshman Republican and former sheriff’s deputy, as a co-sponsor. In the Senate, Republican Sen. Cleave Simpson joined with Coleman to carry the bill in the upper chamber.

But that wasn’t enough.

“I think one of the things I kept telling myself, and some of my colleagues that I work with here from the Black and Latino caucus especially, is it is our job to help break down these systems of oppression,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said. “And the systems of oppression were not built by people who look like us. And when we try to tear them down, we are met with great resistance.”

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