The Denver Post
Denver County Courtroom 191-J, Juvenile Division, municipal offenses. The honorable Judge Kerry Hada presiding.
By 7:30 a.m., a line is already forming outside the locked doors. At least a dozen people, security guard Scott Hopp figures, and the judge won't even start hearing cases for another hour. A good sign.
Posters went up in schools. Messages were posted on Facebook. The judge did some radio. Denver Public Schools and the court cross-checked lists, made phone calls. Boys and girls, Tuesday, Feb. 16, is a school holiday and your lucky day. Have a 191-J case you ignored? Come on in. Free attorney representation from the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. Head from court to community service — a Parks and Rec van is waiting. Two hours in a Salvation Army warehouse packing food for the needy, and the judgment goes away.
"Can we get in on this?" a woman asks Hopp at the door. "Only if you have an outstanding juvenile case in this court," he answers. "So, nothing for grown people?" she says. "Shoot," a second woman says, turning to the first. "They don't do that for us, girlie. No way."
They keep coming, crowding the entry, raising their arms as Hopp runs the metal-detector wand up and down. The kids must be accompanied by a parent. Usually, it's a mom wearing an expression parked somewhere between peeved and resigned. I thought you had one ticket. What do you mean you have four?
This is where you have your curfew
violators, your possessors of graffiti paraphernalia, your school brawlers, your petty thieves. What'd you shoplift? A lip gloss. A pack of LifeSavers. A PlayStation 2.
191-J is a tip-of-the-iceberg courtroom, a turning-point courtroom. High pressure, high volume. Anywhere from 5,300 to 6,300 cases a year, and the reason we're here: 10,000 warrants on cases with obligations not yet satisfied — no-shows, fines unpaid, community service ditched.
Judge Hada says to a full courtroom: "You're about to get a screaming deal."
Hada was a criminal-defense attorney for 20 years. His first job on the bench was in this courtroom in December 2008. He's aiming for at least two more years in 191-J. He likes the work. His colleagues told him they'd erect a statue of him if he lasts five.
"Daniel, how old are you, please?"
"And who are you here with today?"
"Hello, Mom. Daniel, you have a case here for possession of graffiti material and a 2006 case for shoplifting. The '06 case will be dismissed. You have friends who have warrants? You better contact them. Get them in here today. How do you plead to one count of possession of graffiti materials?"
"Do you know my reputation on graffiti cases?"
"Let me educate you. I don't like graffiti vandalism. I don't want Denver to look like Detroit or L.A. . . . Are you prepared to go out and do two hours at a food bank?"
"You're on the next van out. Go do some good."
For more than five hours, this is how it goes. Why didn't you take care of this? the judge asks. They answer: I couldn't get a ride to court. I moved out of state. I forgot.
Minors with outstanding-judgment warrants can't get driver's licenses. Once 18, the outstanding judgment becomes a bench warrant, which explains the 24-year-old man here with a moldering curfew violation from 10 years ago.
"If the police had stopped you, they would have arrested you," the judge says, dismissing the case.
The day's tally: 136 cases cleared, 76 hours of community service performed by 38 young people. Most still had to pay the $30 outstanding-judgment fee, but because many of the families are indigent, fines were waived or worked off through community service.
"We were hoping for 1 percent of the 10,000, so I'm pleased," Denver County Courts presiding Judge Mary Celeste says. "These are low-level cases that go too long unaddressed. It's a win-win. The kids get free representation. We save on jail-bed days. The court gets some cases removed. The kids provide community service."
When the last bus of the day leaves for the Salvation Army, it carries a 13-year-old girl ticketed for fighting last year, a 12-year-old ticketed for the brass-knuckles belt buckle he wore to school, a 17-year-old girl with a curfew violation and a 13- year-old boy ticketed for petty theft and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.
"I just want to get this out of the way," the last boy says. He says he was 12 and mixed up when he got in trouble but that everything is better now.