Hudak seeks way to pay for youth prisoner education

DENVER– Colorado state Senator Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is weighing strategies to secure passage of a bill she’s sponsoring that seeks to ensure youth prisoners charged as adults receive education. Lawmakers have signaled that any bill that requires new spending will likely fail this session. There are currently more than 130 young prisoners in Colorado awaiting trial whose constitutional rights to an education are not being met.

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“Anything with a fiscal note won’t get passed,” Hudak told the Colorado Independent weeks ago, acknowledging a reality of a year where lawmakers are seeking to cut billions from the budget. Hudak however said the plight of the youth prisoners is a tragedy and that it has to be remedied. She’s working to make her bill cost-effective to win over legislators as well the board of Colorado school districts, which opposed the proposal for setting up an “unfunded mandate” that would put the responsibility to educate youth in custody on districts stretched to the breaking point, where layoffs in K-12 staff and faculty are all but certain.

Hudak said there were three main ideas being discussed informally in advance of a meeting scheduled for next week.

“One thought is to use some one-time money available from the facilities schools budget (there was more than $2 million unused there this year) to cover the cost of the students… Then in the future, they would just be in the base of the School Finance formula,” Hudak wrote in an email.

This fix fails to address the districts’ concerns that paying teachers to conduct instruction in the prisons would exceed per pupil revenue limits, which are a little more than $7000.

Hudak said she is considering creating a state authority to in effect pool per pupil revenue so no single small district, for example, would be hit with a bill too big to pay because one of its student went to jail.

Hudak said they are also discussing digital education. Although prisons don’t provide access to the internet, she said it might be possible to give students laptops so they can exchange discs with teachers, the students would read and produce material saved to a disc and the teachers would send back reviews and graded work.

But even minimal costs are still costs. The districts board has said it simply views educating juveniles charged as adults and held in adult prisons as the state’s responsibility.

“The state charges a child as an adult, incarcerates and feeds the child, but does not let the child out to go to school. So we feel that it is the state’s job to see that the child gets educated,” Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the Association of School Boards, told the Colorado Independent.

An idea Hudak is looking at again would see the Department of Youth Corrections take up the responsibility of educating youth charged as adults.

“Some people still insist that… juvenile detention provide the education services. I don’t think this is viable. We had discussed it in committee over the summer. But we will look into it again,” Hudak said.

Juveniles charged as adults are sometimes held in solitary confinement in the state’s overcrowded prisons while they wait for their day in court. Solitary confinement is harsh but authorities are looking to provide safety by segregating the juveniles from the adult population.

“Kids are in a jail cell all day long for months and months and months,” Hudak said. “Most of them don’t end up serving life terms.” They’re going to come back out into society at some point, she said.

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Joseph Boven

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