Colorado — we need to have a talk about our state’s youth. To put it bluntly, we have failed far too many of them for far too long.
We have relied on juvenile pre-trial detention to make up for inadequacies in community services, foster care placements, and medical placements for children in psychological distress. This is a chronic, systemic failure that we have seen unfold in Aurora and other communities first-hand.
Thankfully, in 2021, a bipartisan group of legislators sought to fix this. Working closely with state agencies, they came together to make evidence-based reforms and passed SB21-071. This bill reduced the bed cap to 215, so only up to 215 kids statewide can be held in pre-trial juvenile detention at a single point in time. By reducing the youth detention bed cap, we can instead direct our resources to get kids the support they need.
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The pandemic, however, was a major shock to families and young people across our state, intensifying both hardship and isolation. We now find ourselves at a crossroads. With funding being allocated to address problems in our juvenile justice system, we can either follow through on our promise to help Colorado’s youth or regress.
Some baselessly claim that we are in a “juvenile crime crisis” that requires us to increase the statewide bed cap for juvenile pre-trial detention, but the reality is that this is just not the case. The crime rate for youth has been on the decline since 2012, even as overall crime rates have been increasing over the same period. Furthermore, the state’s bed cap has yet to be reached, while three in five of the kids in detention are there for mental and behavioral health reasons rather than violent crime. The real crisis is our systemic failure to adequately support Colorado’s children, relying on incarceration to fill the gap in services.
Four years ago, Aurorans rejected a $400 million ballot question to fund a new jail in Arapahoe County, in part because they learned that many of the people at the jail are “frequent flyers” who are suffering from acute mental and behavioral health issues. These are issues that are made worse through incarceration, so why would we want to subject children to this same ineffective revolving door?
Detaining children in crisis exacerbates mental health issues, dropout rates, and even decreases rates of attaining and keeping a job. These are kids that we can release from detention with little to no risk to public safety. These kids are better off in their community or at specialized facilities while being provided the mental and behavioral health services they need — and have far better outcomes when we do so.
Instead of misusing the juvenile justice system by mistreating youth in crisis the same way we mistreat adults in crisis, let’s break the cycle by investing in our youth. Let’s make sure that we fund essential services so that kids awaiting placement can get out of pre-trial detention.
I am proud to serve our state’s most diverse city — and that includes the many kids, families, and loved ones directly impacted by the failures of the juvenile justice system. Our community is demanding more resources for our youth, and I am determined to fight for them as an Aurora City Council member.
How we respond to abused and neglected children in need of services is a choice. It is unacceptable to use juvenile detention to hold children when adults fail to provide the resources and services they need to succeed. It’s time to instead give Colorado’s justice-impacted youth the love, care, and support they deserve. We will all be better off for it.
Juan Marcano is an Aurora City Council member, an architectural designer, the son of Puerto Rican migrants, a brother, a husband, and an unapologetic advocate for the Aurora community.
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