Lawyers for kids, support for struggling schools, doctors for the hinterlands


Lawyers for the youngsters

Yesterday the House Judiciary committee unanimously agreed that young people have the right to an attorney when entangled in the juvenile justice system.

On the books, they’ve had that right since 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided minors should have the same access to legal representation as do adults. Even so, extensive research by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition shows that just under half of defendants in juvenile court here never speak to a lawyer. In fiscal year 2012-2013, nearly 5,000 Colorado kids went through the courts without a lawyer advocating for them. 

“It’s a gross constitutional violation,” said Kim Dvorchak, the coalition’s executive director.

“These kids are walking into court. They and their parents are representing themselves. They’re speaking directly to prosecutors and they’re entering plea bargains with no understanding of the full consequences of pleading guilty in juvenile court.”

Such consequences include going to prison or a juvenile detention center, as well as being expelled from school and possibly losing opportunities for subsidized housing, student loans and jobs.

HB 1032, sponsored Rep. Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village, would require that kids are notified of their right to an attorney in language they can understand, that they would be assigned a public defender if they can’t pay for representation and that an attorney would be present at every detention hearing.

“It is a bill that will right the constitutional ship in regard to juvenile representation in Colorado,” said Public Defender Doug Wilson.

The measure now goes to Appropriations.

Two birds, one stone: More rural medical residencies

Senator Irene Aguilar’s bipartisan bill to encourage more doctors to work in rural communities moved out of the Senate Health and Human services committee yesterday.

The measure comes after Denver-area senators Aguilar and Linda Newell took a tour of rural medical facilities this summer, confirming reports that the vast majority of the state’s rural communities are and have been underserved. In 2011, The Colorado Rural Health Center reported that 56 of Colorado’s 63 counties were short-staffed on primary-care doctors. Two rural counties had no physicians at all.

Aguilar’s bill would use state money to place more medical students in rural residencies. It aims to create more residency positions, which are in high demand in Colorado and elsewhere. It also would require a study of medical school residency programs and how they can better serve rural Coloradans. Backers of the bill hope it will introduce future doctors to the possibility of practicing outside metro areas.

“It’s getting those residents exposed to rural opportunities during training, [which] really seems to alter their course in terms of where they go in their careers. I’ve recruited four physicians who came through as rural residents. None of them had the rural track on their mind at that point in their careers,” said Dr. John Gardner, CEO of Yuma District Hospital, who testified in favor of the bill.

SB 144 now goes to Appropriations.

Turning schools around for 100,000 Colorado kids  

A bill from Sen. Rachel Zenszinger would create a state granting program for failing K-12 schools that want to explore teacher and administrator leadership as a potential turn-around tool. The measure passed yesterday on a 4-to-3 party-line vote in the Senate Education Committee.

Zenszinger said the bill is one way to start solving an education crisis in the state.

“Currently we have 190 schools in Colorado that are on high-priority or turn-around status. We have 16 districts that are on high-priority or turn-around status. All told, that’s 100,000 students in Colorado that are in high-priority and turn-around schools,” she said.

If those schools don’t get back on track within five years, they could face closure or conversion to charter schools. Zenszinger fears disruption for students and communities.

Her bill would give grants to help form teams of teachers and administrators to work toward improving flailing schools. The program would replace a similar, but unfunded, measure targeted specifically on principals.

SB 124 now heads to Appropriations.


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