The Colorado Juvenile Defender Center, formerly the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, was founded in 2008 by a handful of juvenile defenders who wanted to elevate juvenile defense practice and advocacy. Motivated by an all-day juvenile defense training with national juvenile defense experts, a small juvenile defender task force began meeting to discuss the state of juvenile defense in Colorado and how we could work together to promote the zealous defense of youth in juvenile and adult court.
CJDC was officially launched as a volunteer organization in 2009 and within six months had 100 members from the juvenile defense community. We continued to emphasize legal training for juvenile defenders, working with the Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel to present a second all-day juvenile continuing legal education seminar. CJDC conducted monthly meetings to brainstorm legal issues and educate ourselves by inviting speakers from various parts of Colorado’s juvenile justice system, partnered with the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar to create a juvenile defense listserv, and began working on a juvenile defense manual for juvenile defenders.
In 2009, we were faced with the death of James Stewart, a 17-year-old boy who killed himself in the Denver County Jail. James had been charged in juvenile court with vehicular homicide in a tragic drunk-driving incident. One day without notice James was direct filed and moved to the Denver County Jail. His despondency over the incident was aggravated by being placed in solitary confinement in the adult jail where he killed himself.
In response to this tragedy and the plight of children in adult jails, CJDC partnered with the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the National Campaign for Youth Justice to mobilize around the issue of jailing juveniles. CJDC published “Caging Children in Crisis” detailing the conditions of confinement for children in adult jails and sought the removal of children from adult jails in 2009. The original bill would have provided a hearing before a judge for direct filed youth prior to being taken out of juvenile detention and placed in an adult jail. The financial cost of the proposed bill led to the narrowing of its provisions to a list of factors prosecutors and defense attorneys should discuss on the question of where the juvenile should be held prior to trial, without a hearing before a judge. Sadly, the legislation was followed by the untimely death of Robert Borrego, Jr., a 17-year-old boy who committed suicide in solitary confinement in the Pueblo County jail.
At the same time, CJDC started a direct file litigation committee for juvenile defenders. Initiating our practice of combining policy advocacy with aggressive litigation techniques, members of the direct file committee crafted new motions and demanded unprecedented hearings on the harmful law that gives prosecutors the power to decide whether a youth is detained in jail. We toured the Denver County Jail and complained about the conditions of solitary confinement; that unit of the Denver Jail is now closed and the youth were moved to their own remodeled pod (a minor improvement but not nearly enough to make it acceptable).
In November of 2009, CJDC presented “Defending Childhood: A Symposium on the Prosecution of Youth in Adult Court.” Our keynote speaker was Dwayne Betts, who discussed his book “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison,” who then joined a panel discussion on the constitutional, scientific and moral objections to direct file and adult sentencing. The symposium brought together child welfare organizations, nonprofit leaders, and policy makers.
The emergence of CJDC was welcomed by the National Juvenile Defender Center, who chose Denver as the location for their 2009 Annual Leadership Summit. At the Summit, the National Juvenile Defender Center awarded Kim Dvorchak, CJDC’s Executive Director, with the first annual Robert E. Shepherd Jr. Leadership Award for Excellence in Juvenile Defense. CJDC supports the mission of the National Juvenile Defender Center and distributes its training materials and resources to juvenile defenders across Colorado.
In 2010, another direct file bill was introduced with success which removed 14 and 15-year-old children from the direct file statute, except for first and second-degree murder and enumerated sex offenses. The new law also created a two week waiting period (same exceptions apply) initiated when a prosecutor files a “notice of intent” to direct file, giving defense attorneys two weeks to persuade the prosecutor to keep the case in juvenile court, and requires a “statement of reasons” be filed by the prosecutor. That same session, CJDC also supported Senate Bill 10-54, which requires juveniles held in adult jails before trial received regular and special education services. CJDC continues to monitor the impact of this legislation.
In August of 2010, CJDC presented its first all-day continuing legal education seminar entitled “Back to School: Education Law for Juvenile Defenders” in partnership with the Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People, the Office of the Child’s Representative, the National Association of Counsel For Children, the Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel, and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. Seeking to slow the school to prison pipeline with zealous advocacy, CJDC organized workshops on school searches and interrogations, school expulsion hearings, and special education law and its implications in school expulsion hearings and juvenile delinquency cases.
In 2010, CJDC engaged in organizational development, adopting a mission statement, creating a Board of Directors, and becoming a non-profit under 501(c)(3), accepting member-support donations from all sectors. Soon thereafter CJDC received a major grant from the Public Welfare Foundation to combat the prosecution of children in adult court. This generous grant enabled CJDC to open an office, hire staff, and begin the hard work of true direct file reform.
Through strategic organizational planning, CJDC developed three core projects: Juvenile Defender Center, Juvenile Policy Center, and Juvenile Resource Center.
As a Juvenile Defender Center, CJDC emphasizes legal training, partnering with the Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel and the Office of the Child’s Representative to present a two-day continuing legal education seminar, “Juvenile Delinquency Practice: Translating Current Research Into Convincing Advocacy.” In support of indigent juvenile defense, the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition provided scholarships to attorneys employed by the Colorado State Public Defender. Additionally, CJDC supports the National Juvenile Defender Center’s assessment of Colorado’s systems and laws providing counsel for children accused of crimes and Colorado’s juvenile defense delivery systems.
As a Juvenile Policy Center CJDC partnered with the Pendulum Foundation, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, and the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth during the 2011 legislative session in an attempt to retroactively abolish juvenile life without parole sentences for the 50 children condemned to die in Colorado adult prisons. CJDC also supported Padres y Jovenes Unidos campaign to end the School to Jail Track to stop the criminalization of students and reform zero tolerance policies. In CJDC’s Direct File Project, we partner with the Campaign for Youth Justice.
As a Juvenile Resource Center, CJDC serves as a clearinghouse of information and resources to policymakers, media, and the public. CJDC co-sponsored the Denver event hosting Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness“, and produced a Resource Guide to help people connect with organizations working on juvenile and criminal justice issues. CJDC also co-sponsored the NAACP Denver Youth Council and presented “know your rights” training to parents, and currently hosts the Family Support Network, an organization of parents and loved ones of children who are incarcerated or encountered the juvenile justice system.