It’s unclear whether Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center, which has stood empty for more than a year, will ever reopen, state officials say.
The facility shut its doors in August 2018 when the Colorado Department of Human Services, which owns the facility, suspended its license with a contractor it accused of treating youth detainees inappropriately. The state of Colorado built the 15,000-square-foot, 28-bed facility in 1998 on 1.28 acres of property near the La Plata County Jail. County records now value the building and land at $3.2 million.
But a decreasing number of children and young people involved in the juvenile criminal justice system in Southwest Colorado has given the state pause about reopening the center for detention and confinement, officials say. A spokeswoman for CDHS said the future of DeNier is uncertain, but she could not be reached for further comment.
“There’s the old adage, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” said Tom Harms, chief probation officer for Colorado’s 6th Judicial District in La Plata County. “Is it better to use the criminal justice system (for children who commit crimes) or to find alternatives?”
The preferred course for at least a decade has been for the latter.
The population of people 17 and younger incarcerated in the United States decreased by more than half – a reduction of about 60,000 individuals – from 1997 to 2015, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Juvenile criminal cases filed in La Plata County have decreased from 155 in 2000 to 37 in 2018 – a 76% decrease, according to statistics from the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Furthermore, the number of youth probation cases has shrunk from around 100 to about a dozen since the turn of the century, Harms said.
Fewer children are being detained pretrial, he said, meaning more young people are left to the care and supervision of family or friends by court order rather than incarcerated to await judgment. And fewer young people have been committed to confinement post-conviction – a punishment designed as a parallel to prison in the adult criminal justice system, he said.
“Putting a kid into the (criminal justice system) can do more hurt than it can help,” Harms said.
Support servicesDecreasing numbers of young people being incarcerated in Southwest Colorado can be attributed to collaboration between law enforcement, judicial officers, educators and nonprofits, said Katy Pepinsky, director of La Plata Youth Services, a nonprofit that works to keep youths out of detention through diversion, intervention and support services.
Diversion programs provide children accused of a crime with resources, support and direction as an alternative to criminal charges.
“We work with teachers and administrators to provide support everywhere from classrooms to hallways for youth in creating relationships and building connections between students and others, and students and teachers,” she said. “We also help support restorative processes when incidents happen in school, which can bring together various parties involved to have a dialog and repair harm and move forward after something like that occurs.”
Sam Tower, coordinator of student support services for Durango School District 9-R, said in a written statement the school district is working with La Plata Youth Services to expand restorative justice practices to promote “social emotional awareness and growth” in students, families and staff.
Law enforcement and prosecutors also have the authority to refer juvenile criminal cases to La Plata Youth Services, a partnership that keeps many young, first-time offenders out of the courts, Pepinsky said. The nonprofit reported a 93% success rate in its diversion program in 2017 – meaning about 126 of the 136 young people diverted were not arrested within a year of completing the program, she said.
The 6th Judicial District’s probation department offers similar services for youths considered a high risk to themselves or the community, Harms said. Two dedicated juvenile pretrial service officers work as liaisons between the courts and families of young people facing criminal charges to ensure youths receive proper support and treatment throughout the juvenile justice process, he said.
Juvenile pretrial officers may seek alternatives to detention, Harms said, which typically results in house arrest with court-ordered conditions of release, such as curfews, drug testing or requirements to attend school. The probation department can offer families fuel gift cards to ensure young people appear for court dates, he said.
‘A double-edged sword’As a result of fewer people in the juvenile justice system during the past decade, the space needed for unruly young people from Southwest Colorado at the now-defunct DeNier detention center shrank in stride. State officials in response sent youths from the Front Range to confinement in La Plata County in an effort to justify spending taxpayer dollars to keep the facility open, Harms said.
It cost about $65,000 a year to keep a child in detention and just $1,200 a year to support a young person through La Plata Youth Services’ diversion program, according to the organization.
Colorado’s incarcerated youths accounted for 15% of the state’s total juvenile corrections population in 2018, but 81% of the state’s juvenile corrections budget that year went to incarcerating young people, according to state probation statistics. By contrast, just 5% of the state juvenile corrections budget funded youth probation, a cohort that accounted for 80% of people in the state’s juvenile corrections program.
“Juvenile detention is expensive,” Harms said.
The shrinking juvenile incarceration rate in Southwest Colorado poses problems for obtaining necessary resources to help young people in the system, said District Attorney Christine Champagne.
Specifically, Champagne said a deficiency of inpatient mental health and addiction treatment for young people “creates a situation where we have kids that are not as successful as they could be (on pretrial release) and end up back in custody.”
“We try to do everything we can to keep them out of custody,” he said. “But if they’re a danger to themselves or the community, then we have to put them back in custody until the case is resolved with the court system.”
La Plata County has spent tens of thousands of dollars and approved hundreds of hours of overtime to transport young people suspected of breaking the law to a state-funded detention center in Grand Junction – a 3½-hour drive or a $550 flight.
“(Out-of-area detention) obviously has a huge impact when kids are not near their family, they don’t get visits and support,” Champagne said. “They’re in a foreign community and that makes it harder for everybody.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a juvenile justice reform bill into law earlier this year, a rule that requires robust screening tools to inform diversion decisions. It also requires data collection and tracking by agencies like La Plata County Youth Services.
“We do the best we can. There will always be more need,” Champagne said. “It’s great to pat ourselves on the back, but that doesn’t do anybody any good. We need to look at the next set of needs.”