Untried youth languish in Colorado’s adult prisons

DENVER– Juvenile suspects awaiting trial as adults in Colorado jails languish without education, sometimes held in solitary confinement while they wait for their day in court. The harsh conditions come partly as a fact of the state’s more generally overcrowded prison facilities, where the young people are held in adult prisons, shunted into solitary confinement in order simply to keep them segregated from the adult population. State Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, told the Colorado Independent that young people held in these conditions have committed suicide.

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“Kids are in a jail cell all day long for months and months and months,” she said. “They’re entitled to receive an education but no one has worked out how to provide that education.”

State law requires juveniles in detention receive education. An estimates puts the number of students awaiting trial as adults at more than 130. Hudak said the Colorado Department of Education is aware of the problem but has yet to work out how to address it.

“Nobody knows where to [hold instruction], who is going to provide the instruction and how are you going to pay for it. It’s very important for these kids to get an education. Most of them don’t end up serving life terms.” They’re going to come back out into society at some point, she said.

A bad year to address a bad situation

Hudak has introduced legislation that attempts to address the issue but, given the historic strained budget crisis facing the state, the odds are high it will fail to gain sufficient support to pass. The Colorado Association of School Boards, for example, has already opposed the bill, arguing that school districts do not have the money and that the state would have to pick up the tab.

Hudak said that a quarter of the cases where juveniles are charged as adults are dismissed.

“A number of them are acquitted and the rest pretty much go to the youth offender system for three to seven years and then they are out.”

Hudak said the resulting gap in education leads to recidivism. She also thinks it increases the likelihood of deep depression and suicide.

In the last year, two juvenile suspects have committed suicide while awaiting trials as adults. Hudak says that in part it is a result of an inability to see a future for themselves.

“They sit there in an empty cell for weeks and weeks thinking about how they ruined their lives. They are children. I see this [legislation working] to not only educate these students but to allow them to have some hope and vision of a future.”

Sandy Mullins, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar (CCDB), agreed. She said that CCDB would like to push legislation this session that would track the number of children who die while being held in the state’s prisons and document the conditions in which they are being held. Unfortunately, this is a bad year to act, she said, referring to fiscal realities.

But Mullen said no child should lose services, including mental health care and education, because they have been charged as an adult.

“We think that anything helps. These kids should have more contact with the outside world.”

School districts versus the state

Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the Association of School Boards, told the Colorado Independent that while the Association agrees that these juveniles need to have schooling, it is the state’s responsibility.

“Articles 9 sec. 2 of the State constitution is what is called a thorough and uniform requirement. ‘That the state must establish a thorough and uniform education for every child.’ We read that to say the state must do that. We believe that the state charges a child as an adult, incarcerates, feeds the child, but does not let the child out to go to school so we feel that it is the states job to see that the child gets educated.”

Urschel sees Hudak’s bill as establishing an unfunded mandate.

“If there were a lot of money the districts, I think districts would be fine with this.”

District budgets are being slashed across the state, by up to 12 percent, resulting in teacher layoffs and class-size expansions and reductions in services. Urschel doesn’t see any way to create a new expenditure without affecting students.

“It is unfair to make the district choose between the kids sitting in a classroom and the one kid sitting in jail. It makes us choose the needs of the one over the needs of the many.”

Presenting options

Hudak’s said that while the Association of School Boards had said there was no money for the programs, she explained her bill allows school districts to count students in jail for their state-supported per pupil revenue.

She said the average per pupil operating revenue is about $7,000 across the state. She said that amount was unlikely to pay for the program costs that would be mandated by her bill, which would include travel, establishing safe locations for instruction in jails, and teacher pay.

Hudak said she still felt that the majority of costs could be paid through the funding mechanism included in her bill. She also said counties could consolidate juvenile incarceration in a way that would make the program more cost effective and lead to less cases of juveniles being held in solitary confinement.

Although some jails may house only one juvenile at a time, such as the one in Jefferson County, others have pods of cells designated for youth offenders. Arapahoe County sends its juveniles awaiting trial as adults to the Adams county jail, which has segregated juvenile space. Hudak said that if all counties used this method, the cost of educating these students would fall, teachers instructing greater numbers of students at each location. She also said keeping juvenile offenders together also might alleviate psychologically depressive isolation. “That is something I am really hoping can be arranged. If Arapahoe county is doing this, why can’t other counties?”

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