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Opinion

Colorado, Don’t Break Your Promise to Lock Up Fewer Kids | Opinion

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by Phillip Roybal, Colorado Newsline

I once read that your quality of life depends on the quality of your relationships. 

I grew up in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. At 12 years old, an age when I should have been roller-skating with my friends, I was arrested for stealing baseball cards and joyriding.  

When children are detained, they miss out on the quality relationship-building of their youth. I was separated from my family and friends. I was eventually expelled from middle school and did not complete the eighth grade. I was detained for so long that I missed school dances, field trips, and peer mentorships. Instead of these experiences and relationships, I witnessed assaults, suicides, and isolation.

No child should have to experience this. It does not add value to their quality of life. It does not make us safer. Instead, every child should be embraced and nurtured by their community. 

In 2021, when Colorado agreed to detain fewer kids, I was so happy. As someone that was put behind bars, I know firsthand the pain and suffering that comes with it. Every kid we can keep out of detention is a success for them, their families, their friends, and their communities. 

The harm of being arrested as a child is undeniable. Research published in Psychiatry Resources showed that for one-third of incarcerated youth diagnosed with depression, the onset of depression occurred after they began their incarceration. There is no need to prove that it is harmful to arrest children — I lived through it. One less child in detention means one less soul will have to go through the hell I went through. 

We need to understand that treating children like criminals does not make us better people. It only makes us sad, hurt, and angry adults.

When I heard that Colorado may break the promise it made to lock up fewer kids — a law that is not even two years old — I could not believe it was true. I was devastated. Arresting kids means we’re depriving more kids of their childhood, essential memories, and resources.  

Instead of arresting kids, we need to make sure kids are supported, embraced, and healthy. Many do not have access to behavioral or mental health treatment services until after they have been convicted of a crime — that is not how it should work. We need community-based organizations to be funded by the state to address these needs before criminal trouble becomes an issue. It’s what our kids deserve. 

As a 12-year-old, I should have been spending my summer at Elitch’s and teasing my sister about her “New Kids on the Block” T-shirt. Instead, I missed essential life experiences that should have been part of my childhood, and I will never get those experiences back.

Our focus needs to shift toward preventative services and strengthening the quality of the relationships between our youth and the community. We need to embrace and nurture our children and give them the experience of summer nights at Elitch’s. We need to understand that treating children like criminals does not make us better people. It only makes us sad, hurt, and angry adults.

I have faith that our state’s leaders can come together to keep kids and communities safe without breaking their promise — and without making more kids live through what I did. 

This story was written by Phillip Roybal, Youth Justice Organizing Manager at Colorado Circles for Change and a contributor to the Colorado Newsline, where this story first appeared.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.