Juveniles in the Department of Human Services: Commitment to Change?

Publication year1998
27 Colo.Law. 121
Colorado Lawyer

1998, June, Pg. 121. Juveniles in the Department of Human Services: Commitment to Change?


Vol. 27, No. 6, Pg. 121

The Colorado Lawyer
June 1998
Vol. 27, No. 6 [Page 121]

Specialty Law Columns
Criminal Law Newsletter
Juveniles in the Department of Human Services: Commitment to Change?
by Patricia Craig
C 1998 James E. Craig

In fiscal year 1996-97, 762 juveniles (approximately 709 boys and fifty-three girls) received commitments to the Colorado Department of Human Services ("DHS").1 Many of the lawyers representing these juveniles on the day these sentences were imposed did not have a clear picture of what a commitment means to their clients. One reason for this is that under most circumstances, there is little practical reason for there to be a post-commitment relationship between defense counsel and the juvenile, so these lawyers do not learn a lot about DHS as a normal part of their representation

This article attempts to fill in some of the information gaps and to highlight some recent changes in DHS for those working with juveniles. Also addressed in this article is how guardians ad litem ("GALs") may need to have a continuing role after the juvenile is committed


The DHS system dealing with the state's most incorrigible children is much different than the system that existed around the time of the formation of the Denver Juvenile Court by Judge Ben B. Lindsey in the early 1900s. For example those children who Judge Lindsey felt needed to be incarcerated were not transported by the county, but rather were required to arrange their own transportation to the state Industrial School in Golden. The judge felt that this would be an important first step in a child's rehabilitation if he or she could be responsible enough to arrive at the facility as ordered.2

The Colorado Children's Code includes numerous sentencing options for the state's juvenile courts3 in addition to DHS commitments. Many of these options are an essential part of any Rule 3 advisement under the Colorado Rules of Juvenile Procedure and mirror the adult provisions, such as probation and restitution.4 Most of these concepts are easily explained to the juvenile client, along with how he or she might be impacted by such a sentence. One area that lawyers have been less clear about, though, is what happens to a juvenile who is committed to DHS.

The current system has evolved with the times and continues to change. This makes it difficult for those working on the fringes of the DHS system to understand what goes on inside and how to explain it to the juvenile facing a decision that could lead to a commitment. Under the constraints of tight budgets and pressures to perform with some degree of success, DHS periodically introduces new programs, as discussed below.

Sentencing Hearings

In at least one jurisdiction outside of Colorado, a court has set down very definite guidelines that defense counsel should follow in any case where it appears that a juvenile may face commitment.5 In that case, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals stated that defense counsel should undertake an independent investigation to determine the least restrictive alternative to commitment. This duty would include a determination of which facilities will actually accept the juvenile, and on what terms and conditions, including the cost of placement in these facilities.

The court further required defense counsel to investigate the juvenile's performance in school, family background, level of concern and involvement of the parents, the physical conditions under which the juvenile is living, and any health problems. There is no requirement in Colorado that this type of investigative activity take place, but defense counsel should at least be aware that suggesting in the abstract at the sentencing hearing that there are alternatives to commitment, without more, is not helpful to the court and especially not to the juvenile client.

Who Can be Committed?

Any juvenile who is adjudicated for any felony or misdemeanor can be committed, with a specific exception for non-aggravated juvenile offenders younger...

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