Two Denver City Council members have proposed an ordinance that would require Denver Municipal Court to provide public defenders to juveniles charged with crimes.
Currently there are no public defenders for juveniles. Those accused of crimes generally agree to a plea or probation if they or their parents cannot afford a lawyer, according to the public defender's office.
“Right now, there is no representation (for juveniles), which is kind of wild,” said council member Serena Gonzales Guttierez, who together with council member Paul Kashmann sponsored the bill.
“It seemed like a no brainer, of course you want kids to have adequate representation,” Kashmann said.
Staff at the Public Defender’s Office say giving juveniles representation would add about 50 cases per month to their workloads. An attorney and support staff will need to be hired. The total cost of providing representation to juveniles is expected to cost about $350,000 per year, Kashmann said.
In memory of Toshio Gilmore
Council member Stacie Gilmore proclaimed support for the idea. “This is overdue, much needed,” she said, referencing her nephew, Toshio Gilmore, “a loved one who was in this situation and unfortunately served time in Buena Vista and in Sterling but was charged as a minor and did not have representation.” She said Toshio no longer is with us “but is here in spirit.”
Council member Kevin Flynn asked whether the mayor’s office has agreed to fund a public defender's office for juveniles. Kashmann said the mayor’s office has indicated a willingness to find the money.
During a public hearing Wednesday at the Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee of the City Council, several people spoke in support of providing representation to juveniles. Defense Attorney Nicole Duncan said she uses color pencils to teach young clients their Constitutional rights. She said juveniles who enter the justice system often are afraid they will go to jail forever. She said children of color are much more likely to be charged with crimes.
The court mostly sends those convicted of crimes to diversion treatment, which focuses on rehabilitation, according to the public defender's office.
Peer navigator remembers court experience
Jared Gomez, a peer navigator with the public defender’s office, said he got into trouble as a juvenile. He was charged with trespassing in a park during open hours when he was just 14. “Having someone who looks like you, understands you, as well as understands the struggles you are going through can be very helpful to sway youth into not making severe decisions which could potentially lead them to more offenses and incarceration as an adult.”
Council member Darrell Watson praised Gonzales-Guttierez and Kashmann for the legislation. He pointed out that they brought adversarial groups together to create meaningful, life-changing legislation. “I am so honored to be serving with both of you,” he said.
The full City Council will have to approve the ordinance twice for it to become law.