DENVER– Colorado is one step closer to providing education to youth awaiting trial as adults in jails across the state. The current status quo sees un-convicted teenagers languishing for months and years in adult prisons ill-equipped to provide even constitutionally mandated services such as education.
Senate Bill 54, sponsored by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, that has been fighting its way through the Senate passed a second reading this week. The proposed law would require the state to provide four hours of education per week to juveniles awaiting trial and also require sheriffs to register information about the juveniles being held in their facilities in a central database. As the Colorado Independent has reported, information on the numbers, demographics, charges and conditions of incarceration regarding imprisoned un-convicted youth is at best spotty, compromising efforts to assess and reform a system almost everyone involved, including sheriffs, readily admits is inadequate.
“These kids are in solitary confinement for [an average of] seven months and as a result have a poorer future,” Hudak told lawmakers from the floor of the Senate Tuesday. She said that 25 percent of these cases are either dismissed or come back as not guilty. The effect is that we have young people living for months in adult prisons and missing schooling for no good reason. Youth held in such conditions, she said, become depressed and fall into a downward spiral. Hudak’s bill would reduce jail suicides and fight recidivism.
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said that he was sympathetic to the plight of the young people the bill seeks to address, he thought the law would negatively effect a larger number of students in Colorado for the sake of a few students who had “made poor decisions.” He doubted that the allotted funding would truly cover the program and criticized the four-hour-per-week education requirement as ineffectual. King seemed not to fully consider that the young people the bill aims to help have not been convicted of any crimes.
“Kids incarcerated in a jail do not have the opportunity to attend school because they have violated the law. This is going to create a hardship for students in school by taking the teacher away from those students… We are not getting anywhere close to the minimum number of hours here,” King said, “At the most, you could get a partial credit toward graduation.”
Hudak said she cut the minimum-hour requirements precisely to ensure the allotted money would be adequate.
Like King, Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, argued the bill was designed to help people who had made poor choices.
“This bill is putting a burden on school districts. This is people who have been charged with crimes that a DA thinks is strong enough to charge them as an adult.”
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, reminded the Senate that “these young people are entitled to a presumption of innocence.” He said the lawmakers were bound by the Colorado Constitution to provide young people an education. “This is still a positive bill that will make sure these students receive some of the education they are entitled to… The time lost should not have that detriment on their education.”
Hudak added that the program would have a number of ancillary benefits that were beginning to take shape just since she introduced the bill. She said sheriffs supportive the provision that would compel county jails to report juvenile detentions to the state and include details on the kinds of education they are receiving and that many sheriffs, upon her introduction of the bill, have taken it upon themselves to begin reporting the juveniles to their education districts on their own.
“We’ll now be able to find out how many children are in county jails and we’ll discover whether or not they’re being educated.”
Ted Tow of the Colorado District Attorney’s Council told the Colorado Independent he supported the bill.