Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
Denver Magistrate Howard Bartlett had a question for the 15-year-old girl standing behind the lectern in his courtroom during a recent truancy- court hearing.
The girl, who did not want to be identified, missed 40 percent of the 2009-10 school year with unexcused absences and had been sentenced to wear an ankle monitor so officials could track her whereabouts — the most serious consequence handed out in Denver's truancy court.
"Do you have any goals in life?" Bart lett asked.
"No," answered the girl.
"I'm going to order that you think about that," the judge said. "You have to have goals or you are a ship blowing around the ocean without a rudder."
Bartlett ordered the girl to write a paper about her plans, told her she must spend 60 more days with the ankle monitor and asked the Denver Department of Human Services to investigate her family situation and examine whether the girl should be removed to foster care or another placement outside the home.
Twice a month, students ages 6 to 17 whose unexcused school absences are out of control are called into Denver District Court, accused of breaking Colorado's Attendance Law and forced to give officials a chance to help them.
In Denver, a student is truant after at least four unexcused absences in a month or 10 over the course of a school year.
But only students with more than 20 unexcused absences are called to court.
Truancy courts are a last resort for school districts after all school-level interventions have failed.
Today, districts are focusing more on attendance problems as research has shown a clear correlation between students who drop out and the number of unexcused absences they accumulate.
A 2009 Johns Hopkins University study on dropouts in five Colorado districts found half or more of dropouts had 20 or more unexcused absences in the ninth grade.
Districts have set up a variety of truancy-intervention programs, including the taxpayer- supported specialists in Aurora who work with children who begin to miss too much school and mediation-support groups in Denver for families to fix problems before going to court.
The last resort is hauling the student and the parents in front of a magistrate. But often that is a scared-straight solution, said attorney Matt Ratterman, who handles truancy cases for Littleton and Englewood schools.
"It's a level of seriousness that for some families gets them to pay attention to what they are doing," he said.
Students can face mandatory drug and alcohol screening, community service or up to 45 days of incarceration in a juvenile-detention center.
Their parents can even be jailed up to 180 days. In some cases, parents have been ordered to attend school for the entire day with their children.