The juvenile justice system has outsized capacity for changing the lives of our children, for better or for worse. It’s often said the best thing we can do for juvenile offenders is to keep them out of the system. That’s called diversion. A bill being discussed this week in the Senate, SB21-066 takes a hard look at juvenile justice and diversion in Colorado.
What could change?
The bill would establish an official category of diversion that is pre-arrest. That’s really important.
REWIND is Longmont’s post-arrest diversion program for juvenile offenders. I invite readers to follow the link and watch Judge Robert Frick’s video explaining the program. It’s for young people arrested for misdemeanor offenses. When offered REWIND, a young person can enter an appropriate program and, upon completing it, have their record of arrest expunged without ever entering the juvenile justice system.
In Longmont, St. Vrain Valley School District and private nonprofit organizations such as the Longmont Community Justice Partnership,m or LCJP, run pre-arrest restorative justice programs for minor offenses that happen at school and elsewhere and don’t escalate to the point an arrest must be made. There are risks that limit how restorative justice can be applied pre-arrest. All the parties to the incident — the student who committed the offense, those who feel they were harmed, their families and teachers — must agree to participate in the restorative justice process and to abide by the outcome. If that process breaks down, students can end up in juvenile justice after all.
Establishing the legitimacy of pre-arrest diversions and clarifying the role of the Division of Criminal Justice in funding and overseeing pre-arrest programs would put restorative justice programs like LCJP on a more solid footing. It also would create a substantial new source of funding.
It also brings resources and regulation to the table that promises to improve the programs by incorporating innovations such as approved screening tools to determine which individuals can benefit from restorative justice, and setting improved standards for data collection and reporting.
The main provisions of the bill would immediately take effect this year. Provisions that require rule-making and development, such as those for screening, data collection and reporting, would roll out between passage and 2023. There’s little point in discussing specifics on this, because the bill has not been considered in committee by either house yet, so it will be subject to considerable change.
What would this mean for Longmont?
By 2023, the bill proposes to set aside a minimum of 20% of each judicial district’s budget for both pre-arrest and post-arrest community-based diversion programs. Today, Longmont offers both. Restorative justice programs are specifically mentioned.
My reading of the bill is that it’s good for Longmont. The existing laws on reporting interactions between juveniles and the police are weak. For example, Hispanic identification is treated like a race, not as a separate demographic attribute, which is considered a best practice today. So in our data, a student can’t be both Hispanic and White, or Hispanic and Black.
Certain aspects of the bill are expected to create more work for district attorneys and juvenile court workers. Others are expected to lower the workload. I don’t think we’ll know the answer until the law is put into practice.
The main upside I can see is that independent nonprofits like LCJP and Mental Health Partners will have better legal standing and a significant new source of funding. That the grant process will be competitive is an incentive to keep improving.
What I really want to emphasize is this is an issue that concerns everyone in Longmont. It’s aimed at making juvenile justice more effective and less punitive than it’s ever been. I don’t think we can invest too much in the future of our young people.
SB21-066 will be discussed on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. Do you have a strong opinion? A story to share? Watch for this bill as it is referred to a committee, and become a resident lobbyist. It also has a fiscal note that lets you estimate what kind of impact the bill will have on state and local budgets. No appropriation is required, which means budget is not likely to be a reason for non-passage of the bill.
In ordinary times, anyone can go to the Capitol and watch the Legislature work and debate. Anyone may speak their mind on a bill being heard in committee. This year, that’s not possible, of course. But the Legislature has made provisions for remote participation.
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