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Monday, September 17, 2007

The Face Of the Juvenile Court Changes

Two of the three judges have retired, and half the staff has turned over in the past year. I wonder if this will raise the amount of commitments to juvenile facilities? Judges Wakefield and Weeks have been there since I was a juvenile and they had an intricate knowledge of kids and behavior. Their ability to work through social services and probation to find ways to keep kids on track has been highly effective from what I have seen.

Two of three Denver Juvenile Court judges retired this year, depriving the state's only full-time juvenile court of more than 60 years of institutional memory and experience.

Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Donna Schmalberger and David Brett Woods last week to replace Judges Dana Wakefield, who served for 27 years, and Orrelle Weeks, who was on the court for 34 years.

Presiding Judge Karen Ashby said at first it will be a challenge to maintain the continuity of the cases and keep up with the dockets, but she said change can be beneficial.

"The most difficult thing about losing two judges is the amount of experience and historical knowledge they have, and replacing that is impossible," she said. "As the new judges come on, we'll have to look at what is the next step for the court."

Ashby said a 50 percent staff turnover in the past year also makes this a particularly difficult time for Juvenile Court.

Juvenile Court handles delinquency cases for crimes committed by people under 18 and the protection of children from abusive or negligent guardians. On the criminal side, the number of cases has decreased slightly, but the retiring judges say the individual cases have become much more severe.

The caseload spread across the three judges is also quite large by comparison with their colleagues. State statistics show the three Juvenile Court judges handled 74 trials last year, while 20 judges covered 276 civil and criminal trials in District Court.

Weeks said the number of serious sexual assaults by minors on younger children has increased even when the overall cases have not.

But she said the court will recover from the retirements and turnover.

"It's a dramatic change," said Weeks, who fell ill in May but would have had to resign this month anyway when she turned 72. "It will survive very nicely."

"The court is high volume"

Barbara Shaklee, assistant director of the human services section at the Denver city attorney's office, said Juvenile Court judges have cases that often last much longer and require repeated hearings to check on a child's progress.

"The court is high volume," she said. "Criminal cases go to trial and sentencing and are over, but in dependency cases, it is more treatment-focused and go on for a period that isn't fixed."

Attorney Rod Borwick, who has had juvenile cases as a major part of his practice for the past 30 years, said the learning curve of the new judges could be a problem.

"They might not be as familiar with the procedures and terminology and the process where human services is involved," he said.

But Wakefield, who retired at the end of August, said the new judges are well-qualified. Schmalberger is an attorney at the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services, and Woods is a Denver magistrate.

"Not only do they have to be the upper tier, cream of the crop of the legal profession, but they have to have a significant knowledge of family matters," Wakefield said.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said his office hasn't seen a major problem since the judges retired.

"Whoever is coming will have big shoes to fill," he said.

The Denver Post

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