Legal aid for youths an issue for Colo. lawmakers
DENVER — At least half of the indigent juvenile offenders in Colorado don’t get legal representation, experts told state lawmakers who began studying the issue Tuesday for possible legislation next year.
State and national experts told the lawmakers that an estimated 50 to 75 percent of juveniles have their cases resolved, sometimes agreeing to pleas, before ever having legal counsel. Lawmakers this year created the legislative committee to study the issue.
“If your child’s liberty is at stake, they should have access to counsel,” said Patricia Puritz, the executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center, which released a report in January on the legal representation Colorado provides juvenile offenders. Puritz told lawmakers that lack of representation is a problem nationwide that has not gotten enough attention.
“It’s the result of really benign neglect, more than willful obstruction,” she said. Her group’s report was conducted over 18 months, collecting data from 12 counties across 11 judicial districts. She said the rate of indigent juveniles who lack representation could be as high as 75 percent, while the executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition put the figure at closer to 50 percent.
The report from Puritz’s group found that juvenile defense attorneys are sometimes stretched thin, taking on as many as 500 cases annually. Puritz said sometimes juveniles and their parents waive legal representation in the hopes of resolving the case quickly by agreeing to a plea deal.
“That has a huge impact, you know, whatever is going to get you home today,” Puritz said. “So kids do what kids do. They make decisions based on the little information they have.”
The committee, which includes lawmakers, defense attorneys, and judges, will meet a handful of times through October before deciding on proposed legislation.
Boulder Democratic Rep. Claire Levy, who is chairing the committee, said one of the challenges will be figuring out how to make sure there are enough attorneys who specialize in juvenile cases around the state.
“We take for granted here in the Denver metro area that there are enough attorneys that they can specialize,” she said. “In more rural parts of the state, you have the equivalent of a general practitioner that does everything because there aren’t enough lawyers to even warrant specializing.”