Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday signed a bill into law to study raising the minimum age that Colorado children can be charged with most crimes.
House Bill 1131 will create a task force to recommend how to better serve children ages 10, 11 and 12 who commit crimes without putting them in the criminal justice system. As originally drafted, the bill — which went on to see substantial amendments — would have increased the age for criminal prosecution from 10 to 13 years old, except in cases of murder or sexual assault.
“I deeply appreciate the sponsors’ collaborative work on this bill,” Polis said in a signing statement on the bill. “This task force will help to identify services that are currently provided by the juvenile justice system for this population and how services may be provided outside of the juvenile justice system.”
The rewrite of the bill came after lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns about the original legislation, questioning whether not criminally charging younger children would prevent them from accessing needed resources, such as court-mandated therapy.
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.
Supporters of the bill said children should not have to face the trauma and potentially life-altering consequences of an arrest to get support, adding the criminal justice system doesn’t address root causes of juvenile crime. 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.
“This is the first step to us being able to imagine a Colorado where we don’t arrest and detain children at the ages of 10, 11 and 12,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, who sponsored the bill. “Unnecessary involvement with the justice system, including arrest alone, can be harmful to a child’s development.”
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, Gonzales said.
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.
Under the bill, the "pre-adolescent services task force" will convene by Aug. 1 and will include, in part, representatives from the state legislature, law enforcement, public defenders, public schools, the Division of Child Welfare and the Behavioral Health Administration.