Violent juvenile delinquency on the rise in Colorado – The Durango Herald

Researchers are exploring the link between violent crime and teens spending more time virtually connected but physically alone

A common room outside a boys’ pod at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden. Colorado’s Division of Youth Services has transformed spaces to look more like a home than a prison. (Marvin Anani/Especially for The Colorado Sun)

Violent crimes that put children and teens in Colorado’s juvenile correction system are on the rise, accounting for 41% of admissions by 2022.

From murders to assaults to robberies at gunpoint, the number of violent crimes committed by youth has surged over the past five years, a rise that sees sociologists studying the consequences of a virtually connected but physically isolated society and the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The percentage of youth sent to a Youth Services Department for a violent crime was 35% in 2021 and increased to 41% in 2022, according to the agency’s recently released annual report.

That includes 54 youths detained last year for murder, 47 for attempted manslaughter and 40 for assault.

“Across the state, the level of violence we see among youth is on the rise,” said Anders Jacobson, director of youth services. “That’s been a stark reality for us.”

The juvenile correction system, which includes 15 state-run, gated facilities, holds youths ages 10 to 21 in detention — before their cases go to trial — and after they’ve been “committed” by a judge. Of the 176 children and teens serving sentences last year, 71 were for violent crimes, including six murders and nine attempted murders.

As a result, the population in the state’s juvenile justice system has become increasingly violent, committing a crime against a person rather than property more often than in previous years. This year, 43% of young people who have joined the system have been convicted of violent crimes, compared to 31% three years ago.

The division has moved in recent years to pods, or living spaces, with fewer children, and has improved the youth-to-staff ratio so that young people get more attention, Jacobson said. It has also stepped up behavioral health services, including for young people held in detention before sentencing.

“We’re pretty well versed in dealing with these types of young people, but there are definitely times when a lot of emotionally charged issues can come up,” Jacobson said.

It’s gotten to the point where the murder victim of one of the young inmates is an occasional lover of another youth being held at the facility, he said.

“It could have been a brother,” he said. “It could have been a sister. It could have been a friend. We see a lot more of those kinds of situations.”

Yet violent incidents within youth facilities in the state have not increased. “That’s something we’re glad to see now, but it’s a daily grind,” Jacobson said.

According to the agency’s data, nearly 80% of children and teens who entered a juvenile detention center unit last year required substance abuse treatment. More than two-thirds of young people in the system need mental health care. The division’s behavioral health program, which includes two talk therapy sessions a week for juveniles serving sentences, received national attention last year and won the National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s “program of the year” award.

Since 2017, when the state legislature enacted sweeping reforms and changed its name from Youth Corrections to Youth Services, the division has steadily reduced its use of physical restraint and solitary confinement. The number of recidivism has also decreased: the one-year recidivism has decreased to 22% in 2020 compared to 41% in 2018.

The increase in juvenile detention for violent crimes comes as the number of arrests of minors in Colorado decreases.

Crime rates, including among juveniles, hit Colorado and nationwide records in the 1980s, then began to decline. In Colorado, the highest number of juvenile arrests on record was 70,710 in 1997. By comparison, there were 19,442 juvenile arrests in 2018, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

One of the safest stretches on record, based on crime rates, was 2010-2014, said David Pyrooz, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. However, violent crime among young people has risen in recent years, and it’s not due to the decisions of the police or prosecutors, he said.

“Something is going on,” he said. “There’s little doubt about that.”

Why violent crime is on the rise is harder to pinpoint, as researchers are still trying to understand the 50% reduction in crime rates that occurred nationally in the 1990s, the “criminological miracle,” Pyrooz said.

Now sociologists are looking at how teen behaviors — including spending more time alone at home, yet connected through social media and video games — may influence violent crime rates. In the past, violent crime was often associated with groups of youths hanging out unsupervised in parks or on street corners, Pyrooz said.

Researchers are also just beginning to examine the effect of the pandemic on juvenile delinquency, which could have repercussions for years to come, he said. Kids who stopped attending after-school activities and sports during the isolation of the pandemic, perhaps as fourth or fifth graders, may not have returned to those sports, meaning they will miss those activities as middle and high school students, when they are more likely to become involved in criminal activity.

The keys to keeping kids out of trouble are community support systems, including within families, schools and churches, Pyrooz said. “Those are the things that really matter,” he said. “If those institutions fail, so will our children.”

On any given day, on average, about 290 children and teenagers are serving their sentences in juvenile detention centers, 89% of whom are boys. The average length of stay is approximately 18 months.

Juvenile crime reports rose 15% in Colorado last year.

Violent juvenile delinquency on the rise in Colorado – The Durango Herald

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