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DENVER (KDVR) – Kathy Sanchez stood at the podium inside Denver district courtroom 5B, with tears in her eyes, as she described to the court the pain she has been suffering since her youngest son, Jeremiah Baca, 17, was shot to death in January 2020.

She was among several family members who spoke at the July sentencing for the getaway driver in the incident when a judge sentenced the man to three years in prison.

“I have to live this nightmare forever,” Sanchez told the Problem Solvers. “I never get to see my son.”

Sanchez had already endured months of court hearings for suspects connected to her son’s case, including one that she says, was difficult to comprehend: the sentencing for the boy who fired shots that killed her son after arranging to meet with him.

A judge sentenced that boy, 14, to five years in the Division of Youth Services.

Sanchez says the punishment was not enough.

“(Kids) know the laws here in Colorado – that you’re not going to get any time,” said Sanchez, frustrated that the youngest suspect did not receive a longer sentence for his role in her son’s murder.

“These laws need to change. If you don’t have no consequences for your actions, are you going to continue doing what you’re doing? Yeah. Of course. Because ultimately, you’re not going to be in trouble for it, so it really don’t matter, you know?”

State court data first-degree homicide cases involving juveniles

A Problem Solvers investigation found there were 54 first-degree homicide cases last year in which children were tried in juvenile court. 

According to court records provided by the state, the child defendants received sentences ranging from one year to no more than seven years in the Division of Youth Services, a rehabilitative program that accepts young people up to the age of 20.

Data we obtained shows half of the juveniles who were sentenced on first-degree murder charges last year received a five-year sentence in the Division of Youth Services.

While many victims’ families may feel the sentencing guidelines do not penalize young killers harshly enough, some juvenile defense attorneys say children should not be punished the same way as adults because psychologically, they are not the same.

Juvenile defense attorneys argue juvenile punishments

“Even someone who killed another kid, that child is broken,” said Jeni Stinson, a juvenile defense attorney who is not connected to the Baca case. “We have to care. Throwing people away doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse.”

Stinson said most of the teen shooters she represents are victims of trauma and struggle with basic needs like food and a safe place to sleep. 

“You see themes of poverty, lack of stable housing, food insecurity, basic safety,” she said. 

She explained that young people are different than adults. They think about the consequences of their actions differently than adults. Locking children up, she said, does not address the underlying issues that lead to violence.

“It’s tragic and horrible,” she told the Problem Solvers. “I wouldn’t want any mother or child to be in that situation, but we don’t throw children away.”

As a mother who lost her son to teen violence, Sanchez feels differently.

“A lot of these children will get out and re-offend again,” she said. “They don’t want to throw no children away, but these children made adult choices, and they had no problem taking another child’s life. So, I think, no matter what the age is, if you take a life, you should get charged like an adult as well, and you should suffer the same consequences as everybody else.”

Stinson said she believes sometimes the penalties for children are too harsh, especially since they are biologically and developmentally different than adults.

The goal of the youth system, she said is rehabilitation.

“I think, many times, we’re incredibly heavy-handed, we’re more interested in punishing because that’s an easy thing to achieve. Locking somebody up for a long time makes people feel like they have done something, but it doesn’t actually address the problem. It’s not treatment oriented. It’s not: fix the underlying problems oriented,” she said.

Division of Youth Services recidivism rate

According to a 2022 published DYS recidivism study, the most recent analysis of the system in Colorado found 22.1% of juveniles re-offend within one year of being discharged.

Recidivism, according to the report, is defined as “a new adjudication or conviction for a misdemeanor or felony offense that occurs after youth are discharged from all DYS supervision, including parole services.”

After two years, the rate rose to 44.1%, and after three years the rate was 59.4%.

Denver’s chief deputy district attorney

When asked whether children who commit serious crimes are faced with enough penalties, Juan Silva, Denver’s chief deputy district attorney for the juvenile unit said he believes “there are some holes” in the system.

“There are some areas of the law that would really benefit from being vetted by politicians,” he said. ’Where are the laws falling short?” he asked.

Silva said juveniles are becoming more sophisticated and knowledgeable about the criminal justice system, but “one size does not fit all” when determining how to hold the child accountable within the justice system, he said.

Silva told the Problem Solvers the current Colorado juvenile system is designed to help children avoid spending time behind bars. “Jail is supposed to be a last resort,” he said.

According to Silva, the juvenile system focuses on the best interest of the child in combination with community safety and victim’s rights, but Silva said he’s seen less emphasis in recent years placed on community safety and victim’s rights.

“If we’re looking at the lens of treating Kid A as the same as Kid B even though there’s a vast difference in the nature of the offense, age, all these other factors, in my humble opinion, that one lens approach is not going to work, especially when you take it into account issues that may exist with holes in the current laws that we have on the books,” he said.

Youthful Offender System

Young people who committed crimes as a juvenile but are tried as an adult may receive a sentence in the Youthful Offender System.

A young person who is sentenced to YOS would have an adult felony conviction on their record and the threat of a lengthy adult Colorado Department of Corrections sentence hanging over their heads if they are not successful in the YOS program.

However, most have an opportunity to find freedom after up to seven years in the rehabilitative program developed for younger inmates.

Denver’s Handgun Intervention Program

About a year ago, Denver implemented a Handgun Intervention Program in response to “an increase in juvenile handgun-related cases.”

The program – targeted at first-time gun possession offenders – is designed to steer juveniles away from violence while teaching them about the legal system and the dangers of gun violence.

According to Deborah Garcia Sandoval, the Handgun Intervention Program coordinator, the idea developed and continues to be supported as a result of a collaboration between the State Judicial District Court Juvenile Probation office, the Denver district attorney, the Colorado public defender, the Denver and Juvenile Court, the Colorado Detention Youth Continuum, the Denver Youth Violence Prevention Action Table, and the Denver Office of Community Violence Solutions.

The six-week program requires youth participants to attend with a parent while the youth work toward goals that will help them avoid future violence. They remain on probation for six months during and following the program.

The program is a “rapid response to non-violent gun offenses,” according to a Handgun Intervention Program brochure. 

“The focus is geared towards early intervention to prevent future gun use, reduce recidivism and increase youth’s involvement in community-based programs. The program emphasizes accountability, strong community partnerships and competency development,” the brochure says.