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Colorado lawmakers consider raising minimum age for juvenile prosecution

Teenage youth sits remorsefully in a prison cell
Stephen Barnes
Adobe Stock
"Scared straight" tactics, assumptions that sending a kid to jail will lead to improved behavior, tend to backfire, experts say, increasing the likelihood of children's longterm connection with the criminal justice system.

Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would raise the minimum age for prosecuting children for crimes from 10 to 13 years old, except in cases involving sexual assault or homicide. House Bill 1131 cleared the Judiciary Committee last week, and is under review by Appropriations.

Elise Logemann, youth policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said when children are handcuffed, arrested, fingerprinted and locked up, the trauma they experience creates a host of long-term negative impacts.

"If a child is detained, that process can actually increase their chances of being incarcerated in the future by up to 41%," said Logemann. "Younger children under age 13 are at a higher risk of being victims of violence or sexual abuse while they are incarcerated."

They also are less likely to graduate from high school and find employment later in life. The Denver Post reports that last year, more than 500 children between 10 and 12 years old were charged with crimes in Colorado's juvenile courts. Black children and other kids of color are disproportionately incarcerated.

Logemann pointed to years of data showing that "scared straight" strategies - the notion that kids experiencing jail will get their act together - are misguided. Most parents have seen firsthand how punishments don't always lead to improved behavior, and Logemann said the main reason is because the frontal lobe of children's brains haven't fully developed yet.

"And that piece of the brain, which doesn't develop until we are in our early 20s, is the piece of our brain that puts that logic in place, so that we can not follow our impulses," said Logemann. "We can consider what the consequence is going to be, and then we can make a rational decision. Kids just aren't able to do that."

Some critics of the measure argue that the court system is a tool to help struggling kids access programs and treatment. Logemann said there are better ways to help kids - through schools, child welfare assistance, behavioral health care, and other community services - that don't lead to life-long interactions with the criminal justice system.

"And there are existing ways to refer the kids to these services," said Logemann. "And the services exist, they don't have to be created. We just have to be creative about getting kids to the services through a different path."