"I started getting in the system when I was ten," says Paul Thompson, now 49. At first it was little stuff, like stealing milk.
But then he got into drugs and drinking and spent most of his time with his friends, hanging out in a motorcycle-crate dugout in the front yard of his south Denver home. Most of his friends were older, and some of his actions were spurred by his desire to look tough, "be a badass" and be accepted by them.
The first time he got in "real" trouble, Thompson says, he was twelve and got caught joyriding in a Volkswagen van with fifteen other people.
"The guys I rode with, we all got taken to court and charged," he remembers. "The judge went down the line -- three months' probation, six months' probation. But when the judge came to hear my case, the school principal stood up and spoke out against me because of things I'd done before.
"They sentenced me to six months in juvenile hall. And that was the start of my stint as a criminal."
Thompson, raised in poverty, was beyond the control of his family. His mother "begged the system for help," he says. "But I wasn't ready for help."
Before he was thirteen, Thompson was deemed incorrigible and sent to the Denver Children's Home, a residential center designed for children in "turmoil," according to Cecilia Mascarenas, a caseworker there.
She was assigned to counsel Thompson.
"She became a friend, somebody I could talk to," Thompson recalls. "She was one of the only people in the system who believed in kids like me. She never gave up. The system gives up, but she didn't."
But even Mascarenas wasn't capable of turning him around. "Poor little old Cecilia," he says. "It was like taking a salt packet from McDonald's and trying to melt a glacier. It's not enough."
For many years, Mascarenas's faith in Thompson seemed ill-placed.
He was in and out of detention facilities for thefts, assault and escape. While still a minor, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for pulling an armed robbery in Boulder. "We used to rob hippies for drugs," Thompson explains. "I was pretty notorious and stupid."
After his parole, he got caught up big time in heroin. And in 1989 he was in trouble again, this time for jumping bail on a case involving criminal mischief, shoplifting and drug possession. He was looking at a habitual-criminal sentence, 24 to 40 years.
Seeking help, Thompson called Mascarenas. Again. Over the years, he'd often called her when he was in trouble. And again, she put in a good word for him -- but said it was the last time she'd do so.
Thanks to Mascarenas, a plea agreement and a judge who didn't know him well, Thompson avoided prison. He was ordered to undergo a two-year drug treatment program at Peer 1.
After the program ended, Thompson chose to stay on at Peer 1 as a counselor. He's been there ever since and now serves as the clinical coordinator, overseeing a staff of thirteen and 82 clients.
It took Thompson more than twenty years to turn his life around. But the faith that a juvenile-court official placed in him two decades earlier finally came to fruition. And that's how Denver's juvenile system is supposed to work.
Last month, Denver Juvenile Court marked its hundredth anniversary, a milestone deserving of celebration. A century ago, Denver was only the second city in the United States -- and the first west of the Mississippi -- to establish a separate court system for minors.
The event was marked by speeches, proclamations, tours and historical displays. Unfortunately, the centennial observation also came at a time when some judicial officials are wondering whether the system is still living up to its promise.
Budget cuts, layoffs and a lack of funding for diversion programs have taken a toll in the past two years. Judges and probation officers are carrying larger caseloads, hearings are being delayed -- sometimes for months -- and drug-abuse treatment is not available for every child who needs it. Worse, a lack of community-based programs means a greater number of kids are being sent to detention facilities than in years past.
The whole point of the juvenile-justice system is to intervene early, giving a child necessary support and trying to make his life as successful as possible, says Denver Juvenile Court presiding judge Karen Ashby.
"Now my fear is that the number of kids who end up unsuccessful is going to increase substantially," she adds. "Experience tells us that if we do nothing, there's not going to be improvement. Now, in too many circumstances, they're left to do nothing."
Denver's juvenile court is credited to Benjamin Barr Lindsey, a crusading lawyer, author and political gadfly who was both greatly admired (for his work with children) and reviled (for his pro-labor, pro-immigrant stances) in his lifetime.
"When Lindsey became an attorney, he did a good job," says family-court facilitator Barbara Bosley, "and one day he went to court and the judge said, ŒI've got some more defendants who need to be represented. Can you do it?'
"So Lindsey went to the jail, and he found men playing card games with children. Lindsey complained to a guard -- he wanted to know why his clients were gambling with young kids -- and he was told that his clients were the children."
To Lindsey's surprise, he learned that this was the norm. At the turn of the last century, juveniles were held in the county jail and mingled with the general inmate population. They were prosecuted in adult courts and, if convicted, sent to a reformatory.
Lindsey began casting about for alternatives for children charged with crimes, and in his search, he stumbled upon the 1899 School Law, "An Act to Compel the Elementary Education of Children in School Districts of the First and Second Class."
The law, although aimed at making education compulsory, allowed the county court to intervene in cases involving truancy and children who were considered "incorrigible, vicious or immoral in conduct, or who habitually wander about the streets and public places during school hours, having no business or lawful occupation." Those children, the law said, were to be deemed "a juvenile disorderly person."
In 1901, using a liberal interpretation of the law, Lindsey set up an informal juvenile court; anyone under the age of sixteen was to be charged with improper conduct and prosecuted as a "juvenile disorderly person" rather than as a criminal.
Two years later, Lindsey convinced the Colorado General Assembly to pass an act establishing the juvenile court. The law also clearly defined delinquent children -- among other things, delinquents were those who frequented "bucket shops" -- and prohibited children younger than fourteen from being held in "common jails."
Lindsey's concept was not merely to help the child, but to heal the child's family as well, a philosophy he'd developed after personally investigating some of the cases before him.
In one such instance, Lindsey was to sentence a boy who'd stolen coal. He discovered that the boy's family was living in a two-room shack. The father had lead poisoning and could not work. The boy had stolen the coal to keep the family from freezing.
Treating the youth as a criminal would serve nothing, Lindsey decided.
The purpose of the juvenile-court system, Lindsey wrote in his autobiography, "was not to punish people, but to save them. If they could be saved only by punishment, it would punish; but not otherwise.
"Revenge would be no part of its program. Its work would be medicinal, restorative."
By 1907, the General Assembly had furthered Lindsey's vision of helping families by giving the juvenile court jurisdiction over dependency and neglect and other actions concerning minors. (The juvenile court now handles paternity cases and adoptions, as well.)
In 1956, Denver opened a new and improved juvenile hall (later expanded and renamed the Gilliam Youth Services Center, for Juvenile Court Judge Philip Gilliam). In a flier announcing its grand opening, the facility was described with a hopeful naiveté: "The entire day of children in detention is run on a schedule which includes eating wholesome meals, schooling, interviews, recreation, religious training, craft work, group singing, movies and brief periods of free time.
"The main purpose of Juvenile Hall is to diagnose the child's trouble, and the children are always under observation by group supervisors alert for any revealing information that might be of help in planning for the child. A casual remark of a child, his way of getting along with other children, his adjustment to the schedule and to authority, his moods and similar events are carefully observed by the group supervisors who make written reports about each child for each day."
Unlike Denver Children's Home, the treatment facility designed for children unable to function well at home, Gilliam was a lockup for children actually charged with crimes. In order to include rehabilitation in its services, it soon added counseling offices and clinics. Unfortunately, Gilliam was unable to fulfill its initial promise, in large part because of crowding.
In 1970, the state took over Gilliam's operations, as part of a move to consolidate the state's juvenile-justice system. In 1994, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state, saying Gilliam was filthy, crowded and dangerous. ACLU attorney David Miller called it "the closest thing to a hellhole I've seen."
Under a settlement approved the following year, Gilliam was ordered to limit its capacity to 78 (at times it had housed as many as 200 children) and provide counseling for the young people and training for the staff. Abused and neglected children were to be sent elsewhere and not detained at Gilliam with kids who were deemed delinquents.
Even as the courts kept an eye on Denver's juvenile facility, the Denver Juvenile Court kept evolving. Keeping the focus on rehabilitation, by the '90s it had also implemented drug courts and mandated the appointment of guardians ad litem (attorneys who represent the best interests of children) in dependency-and-neglect cases.
For Cecilia Mascarenas, it has always been about saving the children.
In 1967, Mascarenas, then a child-care worker at the Denver Children's Home, was hired as a probation officer for the Denver Juvenile Court. She would work in that department for the next thirty years.
Back when Mascarenas started, the probation system was still fairly informal and flexible. "Our cases would come directly from the police officers, and it was our decision to take them to court or lecture and release," she says.
"I would talk to the victim and find out what kind of compensation was needed. I would talk to the family and make home visits and decide whether community service was warranted or if they should be involved with a mentor. If I felt a case was serious enough and the kid wasn't showing remorse or wasn't taking it seriously enough, I'd take it to court."
Mascarenas was given room to experiment -- she finagled beauty-school scholarships for some girls and rewarded kids with water-skiing or camping trips. She also spearheaded some innovative projects that got the youngsters' families involved in their children's rehabilitation.
One program -- called simply "365" -- involved the parents raising money so that their kids could visit tourism hot spots, such as Cave of the Winds and the Air Force Academy. One year, Mascarenas remembers, "we had a Mexican-food sale. The parents made food, and the kids sold tickets. They raised enough money to send the kids to Mexico for a trip."
For the children, many of whom had never been outside the Denver city limits, the prospect of such trips was a goal that helped them successfully complete their probationary period.
In the 1970s, Mascarenas says, things began to change. The process became more politicized. "We became probation officers," she remembers. "Before, we were probation counselors."
Involvement like that of Judge Gilliam, whose vigilance on cases led him to check on kids' grades, was curtailed. "Judges used to have a lot more direct contact with kids than they do now," Bosley says. "Now there are rules preventing that from occurring."
Projects like 365 dried up as concerns over liability arose.
But new tactics were also developed to address the changing needs of kids. Drug-abuse prevention programs sprang up. With an increased emphasis on early intervention, the court focused on reaching ever-younger audiences.
"By the time they're in middle school and high school, they're pretty entrenched in drug abuse and gangs," Mascarenas says. "The more opportunities they have to change their behavior, the better chance they have to turn their lives around."
And Mascarenas felt they were making a difference in some of those lives.
Sixty students from Morey Middle School made a field trip to the Denver City and County Building on September 19 to help mark the juvenile court's anniversary. They listened to a few short speeches about how the laws were enacted to protect them, "the most vulnerable of Denver's citizens."
The students then spoke with various court officers -- judges, probation officers, social workers, defense attorneys and a court interpreter -- about what they do on a daily basis.
Some of the most important lessons of the day, though, were not on the agenda.
As the students interviewed the court officers, they missed the sight of a woman being wheeled past the room. If they'd spotted her, they might have recognized her from the newspapers: Laura Trujillo, twenty, on trial for child abuse resulting in death. Prosecutors were arguing that Trujillo had done nothing to protect her two-year-old daughter from being beaten to death at the hands of Trujillo's boyfriend.
Defense attorneys had countered that a social worker with the Denver Department of Social Services missed signs that the child -- one of Denver's most vulnerable citizens -- was being abused. (On September 24, Trujillo was convicted of a lesser charge, reckless child abuse causing injury.)
Back in the council chambers, Jonathan Blea, thirteen, listened to the class discussions with only a modicum of interest; he's already well-versed in the court process.
A couple of years ago, Blea says, he was arrested for theft -- kid stuff. He stole a condom and some Carmex lip balm from a store. Judge Ashby enrolled him in a diversion program, and he's vowed not to get into more trouble.
"I don't want to have to go through that again," he says.
Blea's knowledge of the juvenile-justice system goes much deeper than his own involvement with the law, however. Emblazoned on the front of his T-shirt are two pictures and the word "Reunited."
One of the pictures is of his aunt, Darlene Martinez, who died of natural causes. The other picture is of fourteen-year-old Jeremy Martinez, Blea's cousin and Darlene's son. Jeremy was shot to death two years ago.
"He was with people who were in a gang," Blea says. "He got shot from five feet away. They closed the case, but I think they just opened it back up."
So far, no one has been charged in Jeremy Martinez's death.
The students might have learned another harsh lesson if the juvenile-court authorities had decided to discuss economics.
In May of this year, Judge Ashby was forced to make what she says was one of the most difficult decisions in her time on the bench. Facing a severe economic crisis, Denver was tightening its belt, and Ashby had to lay off one-third of her support staff. She was also forced to cut the number of juvenile-court magistrates from four to two. But the court will still be handling the same number of cases -- an average of 6,300 annually over the past three years.
The caseloads for the three judges have risen accordingly. It now takes three to four months before some court motions can be heard. The judges are overscheduling cases for trial in the hopes that most of them will be settled beforehand.
Judge Dana Wakefield noted that he's already set eleven trials for October 23.
But the overscheduling pales in comparison to other adjustments the juvenile-justice system has had to make in the past two years.
"The cuts in programs are really unfortunate. I'm seeing many more recommendations for [incarceration] than before, because there are so few community-based services left," Ashby says. "Probation money has been reduced; diversion money has been reduced."
Last year, Governor Bill Owens eliminated a $2.4 million youth-crime initiative for mediation and restitution programs. Funds for the state Department of Human Services were cut, too.
"Circumstances are such that kids are being evaluated for drug treatment and found to be in need of treatment, and there's no money to pay for it," notes Ashby. "Not all of the kids who need it are going to get it. My concern is that when the economy begins to improve, it may be a long time to get the resources we need. It could be a long time to get back to where we were a year or two ago.
"One of the things that struck me as we were getting ready for this anniversary is that we're celebrating doing all of these good things for a hundred years, and now we're actually taking a step backward."
It takes more than caring parents for kids to keep to the straight and narrow.
"A lot of kids crave attention," Thompson says. "They steal a car so they can be somebody. So many kids live that in their minds. It's like a resumé for the world. You crave to be somebody when you grow up poor and you know you're not going to grow up and be on the Supreme Court."
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But when those kids are dragged into the courts, they're dealing with a system that's overworked and overwhelmed.
"The court doesn't know you; they know your file," Thompson says. "The judge has heard the same stories over and over, and he judges you by the paperwork.
"I think the system is more educated and attentive than it was. I think it's tougher on kids than it used to be," he concludes. "But I wish it had more people like Cecilia."