Unlocking Justice: Colorado’s Legislative Triumph for Youth Reform
January 31, 2024
Young legislators in Colorado took a unique approach to pass legislation aimed at reducing court involvement for young children.
By Pamela Goldsmith with Paige Ferguson
In the intricate realm of policymaking, where the fate of legislation teeters on a delicate balance between diverse elements, the anatomy of a bill often reveals secrets to its triumph.
Colorado House Bill 23-1249, signed into law June 1, 2023, was aimed at preventing the prosecution of anyone under the age of 13. Intended to reduce court-involvement for young children, the bill not only works to bring the treatment of eight to 12-year-olds in line with science, it enhances public safety, a factor that helped lead to its successful passage.
Origins and Champions
Introduced in March 2023, HB23-1249 was paramount to Representative Jennifer Bacon (D – CO), who recognized the need to reform young children’s experience in the justice system. Bacon, acknowledging the disproportionate impact on children of color, had been a key sponsor of the initial bill introduced in 2022.
“The reason I got on this bill is because it is usually black and brown kids who end up incarcerated rather than getting needed services,” said Bacon. “This experience [of being incarcerated] can make or break whether they become a career criminal.”
Facing initial setbacks with unsuccessful attempts to pass previous versions of the legislation, Bacon understood the importance of bipartisanship as she championed the pressing need for reform. Seeking collaboration to overcome obstacles hindering its progression, she connected with Representative Ryan Armagost (R – CO), who became a prime sponsor of the bill in 2023. His personal encounter with his nephew’s struggles in the juvenile justice system ignited his commitment into action, leading him to join forces with Bacon and others to make the bill bipartisan.
“Seeing kids being convicted of something as simple as theft and getting directed into the juvenile justice system — they get institutionalized early, and then they end up in that revolving door in the same thing, the recidivism,” said Armagost.
Armagost used the story of his personal experience to help his caucus understand the gravity of the issue “[Because] we knew it would be a big win if we could make it bipartisan,” Bacon said.
Drawing from his law enforcement background, Armagost emphasized the imperative need for change, citing statistics that revealed youth with justice system contact are 11 times more likely to be arrested by the age of 20. A staggering two-thirds of kids who go through the justice system recidivate within three years. He also understood that Colorado had a public safety problem, and what was being done was not working.
Bipartisanship and Compromise
Despite bipartisan collaboration, progress on advancing the bill was not without its challenges. Contentious discussions and comments from those opposing it fueled negative attention. The bill also faced continued opposition due to concerns about its perceived softness on crime.
“The fact that the victims were barely even mentioned in the [initial] bill was troubling to people,” said Armagost. “The language used needed to demonstrate a level of accountability for the perpetrators and also direct perpetrators to mandated treatment, rather than just incarceration.”
To address mounting concerns, extensive Zoom meetings were held with over 100 calls including lawmakers, district attorneys, judges, defense attorneys, and various stakeholders seeking agreement.
Victim-focused Language and Inclusive Collaboration
Integration of victim-focused language became a crucial element in the bill’s evolution.
After lawmakers adjusted their focus to developing verbiage that struck a balance between holding perpetrators accountable and offering viable avenues for rehabilitation — specifically Comprehensive Management Programs (CMP) — compromise emerged.
Inclusivity also proved to be a pivotal factor in the bill’s success.
“It was a matter of trying to convince people outside of the caucuses too — police chiefs, law enforcement leadership around the state and district attorneys around the state,” said Armagost. “There were a lot of differing opinions on how this could work.”
According to Bacon, “This was not a typical criminal justice lobby.”
Direct involvement of the very individuals the legislation aimed to protect — children — added depth and authenticity to the effort.
Bacon highlighted, “We had kids come and testify, which was so great for so many reasons,” aiming to dispel the over adultification of children through early detention.
During presentations of the bill to fellow legislators, Armagost says it was essential to confirm that children committing crimes would not be “let off, treating it as a slap on the hand.” Lawmakers from both sides presented evidence that the Comprehensive Management Programs would have barriers in place to protect victims while working to reintegrate the child into their family, and society.
Organizations such as Healthier Colorado helped support the bill, providing testimonials and information from children and adults within the state’s foster system.
Enabling the legislation to thrive also necessitated the support of those it aimed to serve. Sponsors of HB23-1249 maintained open lines of communication, engaging constituents through town hall meetings, social media, and informative resources. Transparent communication became the lifeline for garnering public support.
Armagost asserts that working on the bill in a bipartisan way was critical to achieving success, and also having a good rapport within his own caucus — he asked them to trust him.
“Having open lines of communication on both sides of the aisle and being able to see this as a nonpartisan issue, and trying to express it as a nonpartisan issue was crucial,” said Armagost.
He says it was essential for both sides to remain focused on the end result, stating “we should all keep in mind that the people this bill is trying to protect are eight to 12-year-olds – dynamo fifth graders.”
Bacon says securing co-sponsors from across the aisle and successfully passing the bill was due in part to the time spent listening to and trying to understand colleagues’ stories. She says inroads were made throughout the process by reverting back to the fact that kids should be the focus.
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