Colorado's juvenile courts suffer from "benign neglect," new study claims

A detailed study of Colorado's juvenile courts by a national coalition of attorneys who specialize in juvenile defense work describes the state system as plagued by turnover, case overload, confusion and judicial shortcuts that sometimes deprive the juveniles in its care of their rights -- and is more likely to leave them in shackles and belly chains throughout the proceedings than adult defendants.

The just-released report by the National Juvenile Defender Center states that Colorado has clean courtrooms and many dedicated attorneys representing juveniles, but NJDC investigators also found a "lack of statewide leadership, coupled with the lack of professional standards or a dedicated focus on juvenile defense," resulting in a system that "suffers from benign neglect."

Juvenile justice just isn't a top priority in Colorado, the report suggests, leading to some questionable practices that supposedly streamline the process while imperiling individual defendants' rights -- such as giving advisements of rights en masse in a noisy, crowded courtroom; urging juveniles to talk to the district attorney before obtaining a lawyer; and plea-bargaining the vast majority of cases, often before an attorney has even been appointed to represent the subject of a delinquency petition. The practice is known as "stip and ship," meaning the juvenile stipulates to a crime and is then shipped out, usually to a youth facility, probation or some other arrangement involving home detention.

Among the report's key findings:

• Most public defenders regard an assignment to "kiddie court" as a training exercise to be completed as quickly as possible. The high turnover means that a juvenile is likely to deal with a series of defenders who lack expertise and need to re-learn his case and situation at every hearing.

• Juvenile courts also rely on a guardian ad litem (GAL), who is supposed to act in the best interests of the child but isn't bound by attorney-client privilege. The confusion of roles has resulted in judges asking GALs to "stand in" for the juvenile's usual attorney for a plea deal or some other crucial business. "The ways in which these roles are co-mingled and confounded in juvenile courts across Colorado was alarming," the report states.

• State law allows up to thirty days for appointment of counsel after the filing of petition of delinquency. Lack of representation in the early stages of case can have long-ranging effects, the study suggests, particularly for indigent juveniles who might be detained for weeks without even having access to a lawyer.

• Most juvenile defenders don't have "meaningful contact" with their clients, either because of crippling caseloads (as much as 500-600 cases a year) or other issues, and rarely conduct their own investigation of the charges.

• Investigators found that the widespread use of handcuffs, shackles and belly chains throughout a juvenile's court proceedings is "automatic, routine practice" regardless of whether the juvenile in question posed a threat or flight risk. Even in courtrooms where adult defendants got their shackles removed, the juveniles didn't: "In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, none of the attorneys even requested that the handcuffs, shackles or belly chains be removed, despite the fact that most courtrooms had several armed officers in attendance at all times."

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Juvenile lifers: Who are the 51 in Colorado?"