Three pistols

Four days before Amanda Sandoval kicked off her 2019 campaign for Denver City Council, she was held at gunpoint in her driveway by two teenage brothers.

The young Latinos had no family, she said, and had been kicked out of the Denver Public School system.

Still, she said holding back tears, “I am not the victim. It happened to me, but they are the victims of the system.”

The councilwoman’s personal experience with youth gun violence was publicly revealed for the first time on Wednesday at a nearly two-and-a-half hour safety committee meeting during which Denver’s Office of the District Attorney, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen and officials from the Hancock administration pitched a new approach to addressing the rise in youth gun-related crimes in Denver.

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Between 2016 and 2019, the city has seen a 160% increase in juveniles charged with possession of a handgun, according to court statistics. Last year, five kids were charged with first-degree murder.

To lower these figures, the new idea, based on a model in Mobile, Ala., is to create a specialized “gun court” within Denver’s judicial system wherein a judge, prosecutors, public defenders and probation officers work together to treat — not punish — first-time juvenile gun offenders.

The goal is to prevent them from committing another gun-related crime and potentially living a life behind bars.

The specialized court would work similarly to other problem-solving courts within the city, such as ones for substance abuse that help rehabilitate offenders and keep them out of the justice system. The program would fast-track cases that can sometimes take weeks or even months to take up and enroll young people and their families in an intervention program that could last from six months to a year, depending on history and performance in the program.

As part of that program — which would be open to youth under 18 who are charged with possessing a handgun — there would be a five-week probation period serving 12 kids at a time that would include counseling, education, community service, random drug screenings, among other components.

Some of the concepts covered in the program would include victim empathy, self-care, legal and community consequences of crime, and the importance of positive peer relationships.

Incentives would be a shorter probation period, not going to juvenile hall and receiving gift cards for “working hard and demonstrating compliance,” according to city documents. There would still be punishment for poor-performing kids such as additional community service, earlier curfews, house arrest and detention.

“This program has a restorative justice lens,” said Shawn Cohn, chief probation officer at Denver Juvenile Probation. “The last thing we want to see happen to young people is for them to end up in the adult system.”

But Denver City Council members and local advocates weren’t convinced that this kind of intervention is addressing the root causes, at least on its own.

“To think that serving 12 participants is going to get us there is a slap in the face,” said Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents northeast Denver, including Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, two of the neighborhoods most affected by youth gun violence.

She said the approach seems to be “dancing around the issue” by trying to address it through the justice system rather than “pulling those layers back and addressing our families’ health.”

Youth have said they need safety at home, in school and in the community, she said. “Gangs exist because they’re a safe place for our children to be — because they feel protected.”

Gilmore said she is “begging” for more money and dedicated resources for her district, including financial literary courses, workforce development, access to health care, counseling, compassion and love.

Jonathan McMillan, who has worked to reduce youth violence in Denver for decades, said he “implore[s] everyone in this room to dig in a bit deeper and what can we do to make these kids feel like they’re heard, to know they’re understood." 

Councilwoman Robin Kniech thought everything discussed was necessary intervention, but incomplete.

“We want an answer from outside the system,” she said, suggesting the city identify gaps in social services and add resources for family connections, youth-led and community-led solutions.

Councilman Paul Kashmann, who chairs the safety committee, said he was “pleased” with some of the public safety solutions presented, but that “dollars outside that realm are critical.”

The DA’s program is still in the embryonic phase and likely won’t come to fruition without funding the Hancock administration and City Council.

Nevertheless, Sandoval said, the bottom line is clear: “Our youth are needing help.”

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