Changes to juvenile justice in Arvada

Two ordinances pertain to fighting in schools, jury trial eligibility

Ryan Dunn
rdunn@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/4/21

The Arvada City Council unanimously passed two ordinances at the July 19 meeting that will change how juvenile defendants in the city are processed through the criminal justice system. Ordinance …

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Changes to juvenile justice in Arvada

Two ordinances pertain to fighting in schools, jury trial eligibility

Exterior of Arvada Municipal Court.
Exterior of Arvada Municipal Court.
Courtesy of City of Arvada
Posted

The Arvada City Council unanimously passed two ordinances at the July 19 meeting that will change how juvenile defendants in the city are processed through the criminal justice system.

Ordinance number 4767 deals with fighting in schools while ordinance number 4768 changes juvenile’s trial procedure.. The ordinances went into effect on July 27.

Both ordinances were presented to Council with the endorsement of Presiding Arvada Municipal Court Judge Kathryn Kurtz, and ordinance 4767 specifically earned the support of the Arvada Police Department and John McDonald, director of security and emergency management for Jefferson County Public Schools.

Arvada Deputy City Attorney Nora Steenson presented the ordinances to Council and said that the city team has been discussing these measures since before the COVID-19 pandemic and felt compelled to get them passed before the start of the 2021-2022 school year because many schools will be returning to in-person learning.

While Steenson, Kurtz, APD’s Public Information Officer Dave Snelling and Councilmember John Marriott praised the ordinances, Arvadans for Social Justice Co-Founder Amy Travin – herself a former public defender who occasionally represented juveniles – expressed concern for their capacity to foster rehabilitation in juvenile defendants.

Kurtz said that her priority when dealing with juveniles is to take a holistic approach to fostering rehabilitation and promoting young people learning from their mistakes.

“My main focus when looking at juvenile cases,” said Kurtz, “not just those that happen in schools, but every juvenile case that comes before me, my goal is ‘what happened here? What was the root cause of what happened? And how can we get the kid to a better place in life?’”

Fighting in schools

The first ordinance passed by Council, number 4767, makes it illegal to not stop fighting if you’re told. Under the ordinance, defendants would be charged into Arvada Municipal Court.

According to Steenson, the ordinance mirrors Colorado revised state statute 18-9-109 (2016), which similarly prohibits disruptive behavior in schools. Because Arvada did not have a municipal law addressing fighting in schools, juveniles were typically charged into the state court system.

In her presentation of the ordinance, Steenson said that charging juveniles into municipal court for fighting infractions would help young defendants learn from their mistakes.

“City team members believe most cases of fighting in our area schools should be charged into Arvada Municipal Court,” said Steenson. “This is less burdensome for our juveniles and their families. The Municipal Court also now employs a dedicated juvenile probation officer to assist juveniles and our presiding municipal court judge is focused on restorative justice and rehabilitation.”

Kurtz said that Municipal Court juvenile probation officers could offer more in-depth support than those on the state level.

“I think our juvenile probation officers have a better ability to supervise offenders who need higher levels of intervention,” said Kurtz. “Because they have a smaller docket and so they have more time to address those children’s needs. They really have the ability to work with School Resource Officers (SRO), work with the school staff and engage with other agencies to really make sure the appropriate services are given for that child.”

Snelling echoed Kurtz’s sentiment, stating that the proximity of those working the case would foster better communication, which would in turn promote more familiarity between SRO’s, probation officers and the juvenile defendants they work with.

“The prosecutor’s office is right there, the probation officer is right there, and the two-way communication between all of those parties and the School Resource Officers is just a little simpler,” said Snelling. “It can actually be in person, which is a lot quicker than over the phone or through an exchange of emails.

“I think this step by the Municipal Court falls in line with our idea of community policing,” Snelling continued. “We have community stations embedded in neighborhoods, we have SRO’s in schools, which allows us to be familiar on all levels with the people we deal with. It’s one more level of being able to communicate and know our community members much better.”

Travin, speaking on behalf of Arvadans for Social Justice, said that she felt the ordinance would create a new means of prosecuting juvenile defendants, which would have been dealt with by the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office prior to the passing of ordinance 4767.

“We are shocked and appalled that the city would take such drastic and extreme measures by passing such an ordinance,” said Travin. “Research from across the country in a range of school settings overwhelmingly demonstrates that punitive responses harm and traumatize children, remove them from their community support systems, and steal educational opportunities from children.

“If our purpose is to stabilize and make our community schools safer,” Travin continued, “further criminalization is exactly the wrong response. Lastly, it is a well-established principle in medical science that teenagers’ brains are still developing, leaving them prone to respond emotionally to situations. Historically, fighting and other disruptive behaviors have been addressed by school psychologists and counselors, as well as the teens’ parents.”

At the July 27 City Council meeting, Councilmember John Marriott expressed his support of the ordinance, echoing Kurtz and Snelling’s sentiments that the community support available in Municipal Court allows for more involved support of juvenile defendants than dealing with the case at the county or state level.

“This allows a lesser charge that gets handled in municipal court,” said Marriott, “much lower than the county or the state. It helps keep these types of highly disruptive incidents adjudicated here in the community as opposed to going elsewhere. While on first blush it might seem like an ordinance that creates the ability for juveniles or students to be charged, this allows them actually to be charged lesser than before and so provides a more community focused and better pathway to corrective action.”

Access to jury trials

The second ordinance passed by Council, number 4768, removes the possibility of a jury trial for a defendant under the age of 18 charged with any “municipal ordnance violation, petty offense, misdemeanor traffic offence, or traffic violation.” Under this ordinance, bench trials will be the only option available to juvenile defendants, wherein the judge decides the verdict.

Steenson said at the July 19 Council meeting that the ordinance came about due to a difference between state and municipal practices regarding juvenile jury trials.

“The state system is designed to shield juveniles from stresses surrounding jury trials,” said Steenson. “It allows those in juvenile cases to focus on trying to right whatever wrong may have occurred, as well as the juvenile’s rehabilitation instead of focusing on the very strict procedures surrounding jury trials.

“Arvada’s system differs,” Steenson continued, “in that juveniles here are still eligible for jury trials. This no longer comports with best juvenile justice practices, so Municipal Court Judge Katie Kurtz has recommended we amend the code to eliminate the possibility of a jury trial for juvenile defendants. This increases confidentiality and allows those in juvenile cases to address and focus on the underlying issues.”

Kurtz stated that it is rare for a juvenile defendant to have access to a jury trial in Arvada. She also said that jury trials do not aid in the rehabilitation process for juveniles.

“We limited (jury eligibility for juveniles) to more closely mirror the state court system and bring us up to speed,” said Kurtz. “It’s very rare for a juvenile to be entitled to a jury trial. In fact, the only juveniles who are entitled to a jury trial in the state court system are (those who) are charged with a crime of violence or if they are considered an aggravated juvenile offender.

“We don’t have either of those here,” Kurtz continued. “All of our juveniles are committing low-level offenses. The second ordinance revision just takes away a juvenile’s right to a jury trial. And again, that looks towards the purposes of the juvenile justice system, which are to be rehabilitative and not adversarial. A jury trial is significantly more adversarial.”

Snelling said that while he didn’t have figures for overall juvenile crime in Arvada, juvenile gun violence has seen an uptick in recent years.

“The volume of activity is increasing in all areas,” said Snelling. “I know in the past couple of years, we’ve seen more accounts of juvenile gun violence than we have in the past.”

Travin disagreed with Kurtz’s appraisal of the state jury trial system for juveniles, stating that state law does not prohibit the city from offering the option of a jury trial to minors, but rather that the city is not required to offer a jury trial. Travin insists that the removal of a jury trial actually makes proceedings worse for young defendants.

“(This ordinance) maintains the adversarial relationship between prosecutor and defendant while stripping away the right to a fair and neutral group of arbiters that would be the jury,” said Travin. “It in fact makes the process more adversarial than not because prosecutors have long-standing relationships with the judges they practice in front of every day, where child-defendants do not have that privilege.

“Removing the jury trial option and forcing a child to face a judge actually increases the formality and stress of the situation,” Travin said.

“Further, removing a child’s ability to tell their side of a story by taking away their right to a jury trial, on its face, does not give children the resources and support to build their own voice,” Travin continued.

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