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Legal Aid For Youth Expected To Be Signed Into Law

DENVER (AP) - Juveniles in criminal proceedings in Colorado will be guaranteed defense counsel at hearings where judges determine whether they should be released while their case is pending, under a bill expected to be signed into law next week.

The legislation comes in response to concerns raised by youth advocates who maintain that many juveniles with cases in state courts don't get legal representation, and they sometimes resolve their cases without ever getting legal advice. The advocates argued that this situation often leads to juveniles and their parents settling cases without realizing the long-term consequences, including having trouble getting jobs or housing because of their records.

The bill focuses on providing attorneys for arrested juveniles at their detention hearings, which are their first appearance after being taken into custody. With the proposal passed by lawmakers this month, juveniles will be required to have either a court-appointed attorney or a private lawyer at hearings where a judge determines whether a defendant should be released while a case is pending.

Supporters of the bill say the goal is to reduce incarceration rates for what are sometimes minor, nonviolent offenses, like shoplifting or alcohol possession.

"It just makes no sense to throw kids away into the meat grinder that is the criminal justice system," said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, a sponsor of the bill.

Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the bill next week. On Wednesday, he signed a companion measure that requires the public defender's office to hire social workers to assist in juvenile cases.

"This will really, I think, help more kids who don't need to be incarcerated be back at home with their families," said Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, which pushed for the legislation. "And then they can be back at school, so that helps the child's case, that helps the child's life."

During fiscal year 2012-13, 4,941 of the 9,714 juveniles in court did not have legal representation at any point during their cases, according to legislative analysts who worked on the bill. That figure amounts to nearly 51 percent of the cases.

Juvenile advocates wanted a requirement that youths also be represented at other stages of their criminal proceedings, but the bill was scaled back to only detention hearings. But Dvorchak said she is hopeful the legislation will be a starting point to increase awareness about legal representation for youths.

LINK: House Bill 1032

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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