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Denver to offer public defenders to youth offenders


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The city of Denver is the first in Colorado to offer public defenders to youth offenders facing tickets and citations.

DENVER, Colorado — Kids in Denver facing petty offenses in municipal court used to have two options: Their family could hire a private attorney, or they could represent themselves.

If kids wanted to provide their own defense, they would have to prepare their opening and closing arguments and potentially cross-examine witnesses. Children as young as ten would have the second option if their parents couldn’t afford a private attorney. If not, their next best option may have been to accept a plea deal or a spot in a diversion program. 

Hundreds of kids face charges in municipal court for petty offenses like trespassing, alcohol-related offenses and shoplifting. Even some situations like school fights may lead a student to municipal court. 

Beginning this month, youth will have more options. On Thursday, the Denver Office of the Municipal Defender will take on its first docket, providing public defenders to clients under 18 years old.

“These are real criminal charges even though they are in municipal court,” Senior Deputy Public Defender Cayce Duncan said. “They are low level. Maybe the young person is not facing going to jail or being removed from their home. We still want to bring awareness to how serious these charges can be for a young person and the lasting impact it can have on a young person and their family.”

Cayce and Nicole Duncan are leading the newly created program at the office. In December 2023, leaders from the Office of the Municipal Defender went to the Denver City Council to raise their concerns about the previous structure. The council voted unanimously to approve a bill amending city code to provide funding for the program allowing for legal representation of all youth charged with violations of the municipal ordinance.

“It is extremely shocking that we are a nation that says that we care about children and that we care about young people, and then there are court systems where the kids don’t have the right to counsel, and the top right that people have is the right to due process,” said Nicole Duncan, Senior Youth Public Defender. 

Cayce and Nicole know many people may see the offenses as insignificant, but these incidents may be the first encounter a child has with law enforcement. Historically, legal services were not provided to youth in city courts because they do not face detention or removal from their home as a result of the charges. 

“Any time that a young person has contact with law enforcement or contact with the system, that increases their chance of potentially having contact in the future,” Nicole said. 

Youth organizations and studies have shown that any type of contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system can have lasting impacts including future contact. 

“Then that starts off this path of what we know as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ so that’s massive,” Nicole said. “Here is this space where I truly believe that municipal youth court is step one to the school-to-prison pipeline.” 

Nicole says it only further marginalizes people who may be targeted within the system. 

“We know this,” Nicole said. “It is not a surprise. It is not a secret that the criminal system targets black and brown people, right? That the system also targets black and brown youth. Our youth systems are merely replicas of the adult system.”

As part of the program, the office will also have a youth peer support specialist, who will help youth navigate the process. They have their first docket of cases on Thursday. 

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Denver to offer public defenders to youth offenders

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