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Bob Gardner, Pete Lee join forces on juvenile justice 

Together for the kids

click to enlarge Sen. Bob Gardner (L) and Rep. Pete Lee (R) cooperate. - PUBLIC DOMAIN / COLORADO SENATE GOP
  • Public Domain / Colorado Senate GOP
  • Sen. Bob Gardner (L) and Rep. Pete Lee (R) cooperate.

As the legislative session drew to a close, Democratic Rep. Pete Lee and Republican Sen. Bob Gardner, both of Colorado Springs, were already gearing up for next year.

The state legislators will work together, as they often have in the past, on a criminal justice reform initiative, this time a comprehensive review of Colorado's juvenile justice system, in partnership with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The Center's analysis will incorporate data and interviews with agency officials, probation staff, and youth and families who have interacted with Colorado's juvenile justice system. A task force led by Lee and Gardner will look at the findings and come up with ways to improve the system. The task force will introduce those proposed changes at next year's legislative session. (Lee is term-limited and cannot run for re-election in the House this fall, but is running for the state Senate District 11 seat, left vacant by departing Sen. Michael Merrifield. Gardner's term ends in 2021.)

Gardner and Lee have previously cooperated on a number of bills that include reducing maximum sentences, lowering penalties for youth and bolstering behavioral health programs. This particular effort goes even further than bipartisanship, though — the task force brings together prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and youth services providers to come up with solutions.

"Even more so than Rep. Lee and I, I think we have a whole different group of views, but everyone sitting around that table has the same objective," Gardner says. "The ultimate goal and objective is to have legislation that improves the ultimate outcome for youth."

The juvenile justice system in Colorado has been plagued by controversy in recent years. In 2017, the "Bound and Broken" report by the Colorado Child Safety Coalition found that injuries to staff and youths in the corrections system consistently exceeded the national average. The report also found that DYC staff sometimes physically restrained youths with a particularly extreme device called the WRAP, which resembles a straitjacket. The department also frequently placed young people in solitary confinement.

The department offered the following comment: "Thanks to the support of the Legislature over the past few years, Colorado's juvenile justice system has made great strides in the ways we provide treatment and support for the youth we serve. At DYS [previously called DYC] specifically, we've increased our trauma informed practices, decreased the use of restraint and seclusion and developed new and creative ways to empower youth to successfully reintegrate into their communities. This new task force will help take our collaboration with the governor and legislature to the next step, prioritizing the care and treatment of kids and teens in Colorado."

Lee has made reforming the youth correctional system his personal mission, sponsoring a long list of bills that have made concrete changes. In 2017, House Bill 1329, an omnibus bill for juvenile justice, among other things changed the name of the Department of Corrections to the Division of Youth Services — a change emblematic of legislators' new vision for the system as a way to rehabilitate kids, not antagonize them.

"A lot of those kids who come into the system are traumatized, and to engage in antagonistic supervisory relationships with them is just totally counterproductive," Lee says.

While Gardner was not a co-sponsor on that particular bill, he worked with Lee on other legislation, including 2017's House Bill 1326, the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative, which reduces the time parolees may serve for a technical violation if they were serving for a low-level, nonviolent offense.

Other recent bills include several that reinforce and streamline behavioral health services, including one establishing a statewide behavioral health court liaison program, another concerning jail-based behavioral health services, and a third establishing programs for individuals with mental health conditions as an alternative to prison.

Lee looks forward to working with Gardner on the task force. "I quite candidly have enormous respect for Sen. Gardner as a legislator and as a person who understands criminal juvenile justice," he says.

Gardner says the legislators' cooperation is less about overcoming political views and more about working together toward shared goals. "[Our views] are more driven by our own views of the world than any sort of partisan thing," he says. "It's not so much that I think that we necessarily get past things as much as we bring different viewpoints to the problem."

This article has been edited to add a comment from the Division of Youth Services.

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