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COVER STORY | Colorado legislature on rising youth violence: ‘We’re at a crisis’

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COVER STORY | Colorado legislature on rising youth violence: ‘We’re at a crisis’
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Alex Cabriales leans in to comfort his mother Irma Cabriales while the two hold a portrait of their sister and daughter Pamela Cabriales who was killed on Feb. 24, 2021 by a minor, during a portrait on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, in front of Pamela’s house in Westminster, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

Pamela Cabriales was “beautiful, inside and out.”

That's how family and friends described the 32-year-old Denver real estate agent and mother of a 6-year-old son. Pamela was regarded as the embodiment of pure love, always reaching out and trying to help others. 

On Feb. 20, 2021, Pamela was driving in downtown Denver after leaving dinner with a friend. While stopped at a red light near Colfax Avenue and Interstate 25, someone got out of the car in front of her and fired at least eight shots from an AR-15 into Pamela’s vehicle, striking her in the head and killing her.

The next day, police arrested a suspect in connection to Pamela’s murder: a 14-year-old boy.

“I couldn't believe it,” said Pamela’s brother, Alex Cabriales. "It didn't make sense to me. What kind of environment did he grow up in to have such evil in him? We'll never get to see my sister again, neither will her son. My sister won't be at his wedding or see him graduate or see her grandkids. My sister will never experience any of that because she's gone, and she's gone forever.”

The unnamed boy was allegedly in a stolen car with two other teenagers when he said Pamela rear-ended them, though Alex said she only honked at them for cutting her off. The boy asked his friend if he could “bust on them” before spraying Pamela’s vehicle with bullets, according to an arrest affidavit.

“He’s a monster,” Alex said. “Once he was arrested, he said, ‘Did you guys find my toys?’ and he laughed. He said, ‘I finally earned my stripes.’ He is proud of doing what he did.”

Pamela’s murder was one of 67 homicides committed by juveniles in Colorado in 2021, according to juvenile delinquency court filings. That is the highest yearly total for juvenile murders in at least two decades. Last year, homicides also made up 1.41% of all juvenile filings — the state’s highest percentage on record.

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Alex Cabriales and his mother Irma Cabriales hold a portrait of their sister and daughter Pamela Cabriales who was killed on Feb. 24, 2021 by a minor, during a portrait on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, in front of Pamela’s house in Westminster, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

As concerns around youth violence rise, Colorado's legislators responded with several bills this session, including efforts to fund projects to reduce youth crime, raise the minimum age children can be charged with most crimes and prohibit law enforcement from lying to juveniles during interrogations.

While these bills advance through the legislature, experts and politicians alike continue the debate on the best way to fight the violence.

Younger and more violent

In Colorado, annual homicide filings for juveniles have more than quintupled in the last 20 years, going from 13 in 2001 to 67 in 2021. Though annual homicides fluctuated between 2002 and 2015 — ranging from 15 to 44 each year — they’ve increased steadily over the last six years. Since 2016, every year but 2020 has set a new record for the most juvenile homicide filings in the last two decades.

While homicides committed by juveniles are rising, juvenile crime in general is going down. In 2021, overall juvenile court filings went down more than 72% compared to 2001, decreasing from 16,986 to 4,753. The decline has been seen nearly every year since 2002, with minor increases in 2015 and 2019. Between 2020 and 2021 alone, the annual filings dropped by over 2,600.

Despite this downward trend, rates of violent juvenile crime are creeping upward.

Juvenile court filings for robberies were the highest on record in 2019. Weapons charges and sex offenses hit 12-year highs in 2020 and 2018 respectively, and assaults reached an 8-year high in 2019.

These trends are also evident in Colorado’s juvenile detention centers. Though juvenile arrests went down 55% from 2018 to 2020, the number of aggravated juvenile offenders increased by 68% from 2017, according to a Division of Youth Services report.

“There's so many different factors that play into that,” said Patrick Hedrick, director of the Denver Public Safety Youth Programs. “We struggle to get across to young people alternatives to violence and taking different paths sometimes. When you're a 14-year-old whose brain isn't fully developed yet, you react and do so without thought, oblivious to the other consequences of what's happening.”

Hedrick said he’s noticed an increase in assaults and weapon possessions by juveniles in Denver in recent years, but it’s not only a problem in metro areas.

Deputy District Attorney Daniel Steinhauser said he has seen the number of juvenile cases double in the last two years in his Fifth Judicial District, which covers Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties. He said the cases have gotten “more and more young” and “more and more violent."

“We're at a crisis,” Steinhauser said. “It's a mental health crisis, and we're seeing it with adults, too, as we've entered the era of the major prevalence of social media and technology. ... I see it all as a cry for help.”

Steinhauser said he's seen youth violence in his district result from online bullying, trying to be cool on social media and issues due to social isolation or self-medicating drug use. In addition to these triggers, he said mental health is still seen as taboo in many communities, such as his own, with youth and their parents resisting treatment for fear of being seen as “crazy” or “weak.”

In Colorado, 15% of youth suffer from depression and 5.44% experience substance use disorder, according to the 2022 State of Mental Health in America report. The report ranked Colorado as the sixth-worst state for youth substance abuse and 12th-worst for children whose insurance does not cover mental or emotional problems.

From 2007 to 2020, suicide deaths among Colorado kids aged 10 to 19 more than doubled, according to state data.

These issues only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

"I don't think we can really understand (youth crime) enough when the COVID pandemic hit,” Hedrick said. “Teachers, schools weren't able to have eyes on kids all the time and really see what was going on. That definitely exacerbated some issues, not to mention just the mental health strain.”

Other violent crime matrices saw a similar spike during the pandemic.

The national murder rate rose 30% between 2019 and 2020, the largest single-year increase in more than a century, according to the Pew Research Center. Last year in Colorado, there were over 30,500 reports of murders, sex offenses, aggravated assault and robbery — compared to less than 21,800 reports only five years prior, according to state data.

Despite this, overall juvenile crime continued to decrease during the same time period, which several experts attributed to recent diversion efforts. 

Hedrick said Denver started its diversion programs in the late ‘90s, providing alternatives, such as therapy or community service for youth who commit crimes, instead of citations or detention.

In these diversion programs, the state can mandate that juveniles receive services and support intended to reduce the likelihood of reoffending, such as substance abuse treatment, family therapy, anger management, tutoring, mentoring, apprenticeship programs or career training.

“The success of general crime going down is a testament to the success of diversionary programs to get juveniles the services that they need,” said Arnold Hanuman, deputy executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council. “We're proud of that downward trend.”

Hanuman said the uptick in violent juvenile crime is a reflection of stress youth face at home, school and in their communities, calling it consistent with the uptick in violent adult crime and a “societal trend across the board.”

Confronting youth violence 

As Colorado juveniles commit more violent crime but less crime overall, state and local governments are scrambling to come up with remedies.

Elise Logemann is the youth policy counsel for ACLU of Colorado, specializing in legislation involving kids in the delinquency system. Logemann said it’s essential to use evidence-based approaches to handling youth violence.

“For kids in particular, we know that the earlier they have contact with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are in the future to engage in criminal activity,” Logemann said. "If we can provide them with appropriate services and programs in the right evidence-based and trauma-informed environment and space, that reduces recidivism.”

Juveniles who were incarcerated are 23 percentage points more likely to return to jail as an adult compared to juveniles who committed similar crimes but avoided incarceration, according to a 2015 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Incarcerated juveniles are 13 percentage points less likely to graduate high school than their diverted peers.

The study also found that 40% of incarcerated juveniles monitored over 10 years ended up back in prison by the time they were 25 years old. 

Experts said the high recidivism rates are likely due to juveniles falling behind in school while away, losing access to employment opportunities due to their criminal records, experiencing worsening mental health issues while incarcerated and meeting other more dangerous criminals in detention who introduce them to new crimes, such as drug dealing.

“If we're putting young kids through the system at an early age or not providing the mental health care that they need or not providing responses in the right environment, then we know that can increase crime and cause problems to community safety,” Logemann said.

Juveniles also face a higher risk of violence and sexual abuse while in detention.

A 2015 report found that nearly 10% of youth in state juvenile detention facilities said they were victimized sexually. The report also detailed 139 assaults committed at the Spring Creek Youth Center in Colorado Springs in 2014. Persisting issues including staff dealing drugs to juvenile inmates and sexual relationships between staff and juveniles were reported just last year.

Against this backdrop, most juvenile criminals are already suffering from trauma. 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.

“The goal is to prevent them from becoming involved in that system at all,” said Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver, who is sponsoring five juvenile justice bills this session. “The disservice that we're doing to kids is not giving them the services when they need it. ... If we would've provided that help, then would that kid have ended up committing a crime?”

Gonzales-Gutierrez said the state needs to increase resources, notably mental health support and mentoring programs in schools, to reach kids before they make contact with the criminal justice system. She also said they need to address underlying causes of crimes, including poverty and homelessness.

Others argue the issue of recently increasing juvenile violence might come down to social changes.

Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, said society is moving away from personal responsibility.

The former sheriff of Weld County said parents nowadays are more upset with police when they arrest their children than they are with the children themselves. Though he doesn’t believe juveniles need to be incarcerated for minor crimes, such as shoplifting, he said tough punishment is necessary for violent crimes and repeat offenders.

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Investigators walk the scene near a playground at the scene of a shooting at Nome Park on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Aurora, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

“The fabric of our society is dwindling,” Cooke said. “We just need to get tough on crime, whether it's an adult or juvenile. If you commit a violent crime, then those need to be taken seriously and use the full thrust of the juvenile justice system against him.”

The 14-year-old boy accused of killing Pamela Cabriales was arrested and released from juvenile custody at least three times before the fatal shooting, 9News reported. The arrests occurred within a year of the murder and included charges of aggravated robbery. He is also believed to have been involved in a shooting at a Denver McDonald’s the night before the murder, according to an arrest affidavit.

Pamela’s brother Alex said he blames the judge and district attorney involved for his sister’s death, saying they should have never let the boy run free in the first place.

“He’s evil and there's no doubt in my mind that the only thing that's going to stop him from killing again is the government,” Alex said. “People should get a second chance and it depends on the crime, but it's my belief that once a juvenile picks up a gun, they are beyond rehabilitation.”

Deputy District Attorney Steinhauser disagrees.

Last August, three middle school students ages 12 and 13 broke into a gun store in Eagle and stole five guns. Steinhauser said the act shook the community and caused fears about an attempted school shooting. After the kids were identified and arrested, Steinhauser said his office struggled to decide when they should be released and how to handle the situation.

Over the course of seven months, the kids were put on house arrest and given mental health evaluations, therapy and other support services, including mentoring from their local school resource officer. At the sentencing hearing in March, two of the kids got probation and one said he now wants to be a police officer when he grows up. 

Steinhauser called the case a “prime example” of how the juvenile justice system can work in the best interest of juveniles.

"There's so much trauma in the kids’ lives. These were cries for help, and we were able to get them the help,” Steinhauser said. “These kids have shown us that they can be trusted in this community. They've shown us that you are better than your worst decision, your worst choice or your worst moment.”

A cry for help and the legislative response 

This session, the Colorado legislature is considering more than half a dozen bills regarding juveniles in the criminal justice system. They include House Bill 1003, which allocates $2 million to fund projects that reduce youth crime; House Bill 1211, which extends the Juvenile Justice Reform Committee until the end of the year; and Senate Bill 113, which bans facial recognition in schools until 2025 including for discipline purposes.

Two of the more controversial bills on the docket are Senate Bill 23, which seeks to prohibit law enforcement from lying to juveniles during interrogations, and House Bill 1131, which would increase the minimum age that children can be charged with most crimes from 10 to 13 years old.

"I see this as a means of prevention from ending up in the adult system and from engaging in more concerning behaviors as an older adolescent,” said Gonzales-Gutierrez, who is sponsoring SB-23, HB-1131, HB-1003 and HB-1211. “I see this as an opportunity to help our kids and really to help our families.”

SB-23 makes a juvenile’s statements inadmissible in court if law enforcement knowingly deceived them during the interrogation, including lying about evidence against the juvenile or offering unauthorized leniency to prompt a confession. The bill also requires all interrogations of juveniles to be recorded.

Gonzales-Gutierrez said deceptive tactics by law enforcement can lead to juveniles confessing to crimes they didn’t commit out of fear or confusion. Of juveniles exonerated for crimes over a 25-year period, 38% had given false confessions, according to a 2013 study by the National Registry of Exonerations. In contrast, only 11% of exonerated adults provided false confessions.

“It puts our community in a place of saying, 'Do we teach our kids to trust the police?'” said Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, who is sponsoring SB-23 and HB-1131. “There's a narrative on needing to work with police and not villainize police. We need to trust police, but they're fighting so adamantly for this ability to (deceive).”

Todd Reeves, division chief of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, said the bill would make it more difficult to solve serious and violent crimes committed by juveniles, which are becoming more and more common in the state. In addition to using deception to get confessions, Reeves said police also lie to protect and provide anonymity to those who reported a crime.

“That becomes incredibly troubling. It doesn't allow us to be able to provide justice to the victim of the crime,” Reeves said. “Law enforcement, just like anybody else, cares what happens to these juveniles, and we care to come up with a good resolution to ensure there isn't further victimization and further crime. We need whatever tools are available to make that happen."

The law enforcement community at large has stood in firm opposition to SB-23, as well as to HB-1131.

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

Bacon said the bill seeks to protect children from the traumatizing aspects of the juvenile criminal justice system, especially for children of color, who are 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 were 20% of those detained, according to state data.

“We are seeing disproportionate numbers of kids of color entering this system that is not the best equipped to help them build healthy relationships with community, to help them build healthy relationships with other people or to prevent recidivism down the line,” Bacon said. “We need to deal with children when it comes to accountability for the behavior with less of a punitive system."

In addition to law enforcement, many judges and district attorneys have spoken against HB-1131, saying charging children with crimes allows courts to mandate rehabilitation efforts, such as therapy, to get the kids needed help. Steinhauser used his case of the three middle schoolers who stole from the gun store as an example of why it is often necessary to criminally charge young children.

Supporters argued that children should not have to face the trauma and potentially life-altering consequences of an arrest to access help. If enacted, the bill would create a task force to recommend how to service children aged 10 to 12 years old who would previously receive mandatory care.

NCTI of Colorado President Mark Whitney — which provides classes to youth and adults referred out of the court system — said he is concerned about where the treatment is going to come from and who is going to pay for it. Whitney said many facilities like his own are understaffed and underfunded, with long waitlists already. He is also worried the bill would result in too few consequences for children who commit serious crimes.

“There are very little consequences now for their actions,” Whitney said. “A lot of courts don't want these kids in the juvenile system, so they'll offer them a diversion program right now — a deal that basically says, 'Take this class, pay this small fine and we're going to expunge your record.'"

"Now you're making it even easier for those kids,” he added.

HB-1131 has received some bipartisan support in the legislature. Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said he thinks keeping all young children out of the criminal justice system is in their best interest.

“The younger a person is in a juvenile justice situation, there's far more opportunity to make a change there and to make a difference,” Gardner said. “Even if what the young person has done is a pretty serious crime, it's very early in their development. You have an opportunity to make changes by simply making the right placement for the child, not putting them in the system. Incarceration's not the answer there.”

SB-23 and HB-1131 are advancing through the legislature mostly along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans in opposition. SB-23 passed the full Senate and its first House committee on March 15. HB-1131 passed its first committee on March 9.

Despite this progress, some experts question whether the legislature is the right place to solve the problem of youth violence at all.

“It's an issue that we're not going to legislate our way out of, nor are we going to arrest our way out of,” said Hedrick of the Denver Public Safety Youth Programs. “We need to meet kids and families where they're at.”

Hedrick said the state should focus on funding and expanding existing programs that are working to address youth violence. For example, Denver's Youth Violence Prevention Action Table, Strong African American Families Program, Handgun Intervention Program and the school district’s alternatives to citations pilot program.

Hanuman with the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council said the legislature is moving too quickly in its rush to tackle youth violence. He said the state has passed around 37 bills dealing with the juvenile justice system in the last 10 years and needs to give the bills time to play out.

“It takes time to see additional changes have their effect,” Hanuman said. “There's always an opportunity to improve, but I'm not sure that there's more to do right now without letting certain reforms the legislature has already passed take effect.”

But for many Coloradans, change isn’t coming fast enough.

Alex said he’s been waiting for change since his brother was fatally shot in Denver in 1994 — 27 years before his sister’s murder in the same city.

After Pamela’s murder, Alex said he tried to take action by advocating for legislation to prevent criminals from being released on bond like the 14-year-old who allegedly killed his sister was. But Alex has since given up, saying the state legislature is moving in the opposite direction. 

“I'm not going to make a difference,” Alex said. “But something needs to change here in Colorado.”

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Irma and Alex Cabriales, the mother and brother of Pamela Cabriales who was killed on Feb. 24, 2021 by a minor, hold a photo of her during a portrait on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, in front of Pamela’s house in Westminster, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

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