New Denver court program for teens caught with guns aims to mitigate cycle of youth violence

Five teenagers have been shot and killed in Denver this year as the city’s years-long youth violence epidemic continues, but leaders in the juvenile criminal legal system hope a new program will help stop the bloodshed.

A long-awaited court program began this month that officials hope will disrupt the cycle of violence by intervening in the lives of teenagers caught with guns before they are victims or perpetrators of violence.

Denver’s new Handgun Intervention Program accepted its first two participants on July 12 and is a collaboration between prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, the juvenile court and community members, program leaders said.

Those involved in the creation of the court hope intervening when a teen is facing a gun possession charge will prevent them from escalating to violence and facing more serious charges, like aggravated assault or homicide.

“They have access and possession of guns,” said Sharletta Evans, founder of the nonprofit Victim and Offender Mitigation Initiative, who has worked on the new program. “We know they’re getting them. We know they’re apt to use them. But if we can impact these kids’ lives and let them know we’re here in a nonjudgmental way, we can help them put the guns down.”

Many of the teens who successfully complete the program will also have the chance to have the criminal charge expunged from their record, said Courtney Johnston, chief of the juvenile unit at the Denver District Attorney’s Office.

The program also aims to reduce the total time a young person is enmeshed in the courts. Program leaders hope most teens will complete the program in six months, far shorter than the length of a typical case and probation term.

The program is government’s most recent effort to address youth violence in Denver. City officials have handed out gun locks, created a new Office of Youth Violence Prevention and given money to community-based efforts to stymie the violence. Since 2018, when fatal teen gun violence spiked, 33 teenagers have been shot and killed in Denver, according to records maintained by The Denver Post.

Juvenile gun possession cases rose around the same time. Denver prosecutors have filed 48 cases against juveniles for gun possession charges so far this year — more than the 46 recorded in all of 2016, data from the district attorney’s office shows.

The number of cases filed every year has trended upward since 2016, reaching triple digits in 2017. Between 2015 and 2017, prosecutors filed an average of 58 cases a year. Between 2018 and 2020, the yearly average jumped to 109.

The rise in cases was alarming, Cohn said, and prompted the people working in the juvenile criminal legal system to seek new solutions. The status quo wasn’t working, she said, as many children facing gun possession charges soon picked up new gun charges.

The age of teens caught with guns has also fallen. Four years ago, it was primarily 16- and 17-year-olds facing gun possession charges, said Shawn Cohn, chief probation officer at Denver Juvenile Probation. Now, the courts are seeing 14-year-old defendants more frequently.

“They will tell you, ‘I don’t feel safe,’” Cohn said.

Here’s how the Handgun Intervention Program works: Young people under the age of 18 arrested for illegal possession of a gun will receive an opportunity to join the court program. The first weeks of the program are designed to be intensive, with multiple meetings a week with Denver Juvenile Court Presiding Judge David Brett Woods, their probation officer and educational panels. The probation officer is tasked with helping connect the teens to mental health services, if needed, and other resources.

Over the course of the program, the teens will attend sessions on their rights in police interactions and in court, the dangers of guns and how gun violence affects a community from a public health approach. The participants will also be required to complete community service and create a project that explains their goals for their lives.

“It’s about trying to help them see hope for their future,” Cohn said.

The teens will also meet with a panel of community advisers and hear from people who’ve been impacted by gun violence. The “victim impact panel” includes people who have lost loved ones to gun violence as well as people who spent time in prison for violence they committed, Evans said.

In 1995, a 16-year-old shot and killed Evans’ 3-year-old boy, Casson. Since then, she’s worked in restorative justice and last summer led an effort called the Put Your Gun Down Campaign to address youth violence. She hopes that by sharing her story the young people will see how their actions can devastate the lives of others.

“They can hear what can actually happen when you have a gun in your possession,” she said. “It’s not all the glamour that you’re hearing from your peers.”

The program will also require the participation of the teens’ parents and will help pay for child care and transportation so the family can attend sessions together. Program leaders hope to eventually have community advisory panels specific to geographic areas of the city, but are beginning with one citywide panel.

“It’s really important for us to honor and respect the communities that the youth live in and allow them to be involved in their success and their treatment,” said Priscilla Gartner of the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender.

The court’s success will be judged by how many participants face gun crime charges after completing the program, Johnston said.

Discussions about creating a new program began in 2018 but progress was slowed by a lack of funding sources and the pandemic. Much of the money for the program is coming from within the agencies’ established budgets.

When program leaders first presented the concept of the Handgun Intervention Program at a City Council committee meeting in early 2020, they were met with a mixed response. Critics at the meeting said the program would not reach enough teens and was too enmeshed in the criminal legal system.

But the teenagers involved in the program are already involved in the criminal legal system, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said. The goal is to make their interactions with the system as harmless and efficient as possible.

“They’re in the system now, so how can we best help them as they move on in life to not further engage in the criminal justice system?” McCann said.

The program leaders acknowledged the Handgun Intervention Program is not the cure-all for youth violence in Denver. But they felt a sense of urgency to address the problem within their work, Johnston said. The prosecutors responded to too many homicide scenes where teenagers laid dead.

“We can’t ignore it, we can’t turn a blind eye,” Johnston said.

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